30 Jun 2009

Crystallising Planning Permission

One of the more intriguing questions I got asked at the Sandown Park Homebuilding & Renovating show last weekend was “How do we go about ensuring our planning permission doesn’t run out.”

The couple asking me were from nearby Sutton and they seemed fairly knowledgeable about the topic and had heard that:
• planning permission doesn’t last forever
• unless you make a start on the building works, in which case the planning permission is crystallised for all time.

I’m not actually sure that crystallised is recognised as kosher planning jargon, but it makes sense to me. Anyway, essentially their information is correct. But as so often happens it begs a whole series of follow-on queries.

How long does planning permission last? It used to be five years, but the government in its wisdom reduced this to three years back in 2005. The reason for this was to prevent developers stockpiling land — something incidentally which the developers denied doing deliberately. It was never meant to hit householder’s extensions but bureaucracy has a habit of scything down all in front of it.

The irony is that the credit crunch has wrought havoc with many development plans and there are now loads of 3-year planning permissions granted back in the boom years which haven’t been built and are about to expire. No one is stockpiling land – they just haven’t got any money!

How do you crystallise planning permission? You need to make a start on site. There is nothing in the planning guidelines to define what a start consists of, but it is generally accepted that it means having completed the foundations (or at least some of them). Everybody knows this, but you’ll have great trouble getting a planning officer to confirm this to you. Which was exactly the experience of my Sutton couple, which is why they were asking me this query.

Their story got even more bizarre as they explained it in greater depth. It turned out that they were wanting to build an extension to an already existing extension. The existing extension had been done under Permitted Development Rights but the new work would exceed the limits set by these rights. Hence they had gone to the trouble of applying for planning permission two years ago. They didn’t want to have to re-apply, so they were wondering what they needed to do to crystallise the permission. You see, they thought the existing extension was Gerry built and were considering knocking it all down and building the new improved extension from scratch. But then again, maybe not – maybe the existing extension could be adapted.

Can you see the problem? What is the point making a start on an extension when you don’t yet know quite how it is going to be built?

What I suggested to them was that they dug down at the corner of the existing extension and exposed the foundations to see if they were adequate. And at the same time, ask the Building Inspector round to see what they were doing and to ask his opinion. In doing so, they would have made a record of having made a start.

I think that will suffice. But in truth I am not sure, because there are no written guidelines. It seems they may well end up with a small hole outside their back door which may be there for some time — like the big developers, they also hadn’t got enough money at the moment to undertake this work.

After they moved on, I went into grumpy mode. It just seems such an absurd situation, doesn’t it? People having to dig holes in the garden to satisfy some stupid town hall planning policy. This wasn’t what planning permission was meant to be about…..but it’s what we’ve ended up with.


  1. For your information, the technical term for "crystallising" a PP, is EXTANT.
    The Planning Portal has recent change of info on timescale of PP, in that the Govnt has belatedly given LA permission to revert to 5 years, and one London LA has done so.
    You will need to check the `how and when` applicable to your own PP.
    Also you should check with your LA as to what they will accept to make a PP Extant, as they do vary in interpretation. Usually a first recorded Building Regs inspection upon a Regs application is sufficient, or some LA attach a return slip to the approval for notifying them formally of the start.
    I agree that Planning is generally absurd.

    Anthony Southey

  2. AnonymousJuly 03, 2009

    Reminds me of the situation in Greece (I think) where people don't finish their home, leaving the upper floor as work in progress, all to avoid paying some tax due on completion of the building work.

  3. Actually, there is a legal definition. it's written in law. To be precise, it's in The Town and Country Planning Act 1990, Section 56 (Time when development begun): http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1990/ukpga_19900008_en_6

    Cutting it to 3 years was still daft though.