8 Sept 2006

The Demise of Outline Planning Permission

If you want a good example of how our reforming government manages to make most things worse than they were before, you need look no further than what’s just happened to outline planning permissions.

Planning applications have traditionally fallen into two distinct categories, outline and detailed. You can’t build without detailed permission, but you can use outline to establish a right to build. Thus if you wanted to work out whether you could build a new house in your back garden, you could apply for outline permission and, if successful, that would give you three years to submit a detailed application for exactly what it was you wanted to build.

Now, traditionally, all you needed for an outline permission was a location plan at 1:1250 and a site plan at 1:500, with the site in question outlined in red. Anyone who could handle a photocopier had the skills to submit an outline application. If the site was difficult, there might have had to be some attention paid to things like parking or access but mostly it was just a red line on a map.

No more.

In future, outline permission will have to include information on the footprint to be developed, together with upper and lower limits on height, width and length of each and every new building. You will also have to submit information about the access arrangements. Now you can’t realistically do this without drawing up some sketches at the very least. Not only is this time consuming and expensive but it also restricts your options if and when outline planning is achieved.

One of the beauties of the old system was that you could start with a blank sheet of paper when it came to siting, sizing and detailing your house. OK, you would get involved in interminable discussions with the planners about what you could and couldn’t get away with, but at least you had the luxury of choice. Now you have to commit yourself to a shape, size and situation just to win outline permission. Just about all that would be left after this would be a few arguments over windows, bricks and roof tiles, the sort of details that used to be called reserved matters.

It’s hard to see who gains by these new rules.

The applicant is severely disadvantaged because they now have to undertake most of the design work on spec, without even knowing whether the scheme as a whole is even acceptable. Which, in turn, means that the resulting designs are likely to be much more timid and less challenging. And a lot of time and money will be wasted.

The other side of the coin is that the planners have much more negotiating power because they have the threat of throwing out the entire scheme now, where previously both sides knew that something could be built and that a compromise would have to emerge. But do the planners actually want or need this added elbow room? They are already snowed under with the workload from domestic applications, of which 90% get passed. This will only increase their workload because they will now have to make value judgments about whether the application in front of them merits approval based on God Knows What criteria and this in turn may well involve several applications on each site.

They might just as well have axed outline planning permissions altogether and be done with. But no, the pretence that the outline planning stage still exists is held onto, thus making a difficult task — obtaining planning permission — even more difficult, risky, time consuming and expensive. In other words, another classic New Labour reform. How do they do it?


  1. Is this a done deal, and if so when does it come into force? We're not fans of the planning system already, so news of yet another layer of obfuscation and complexity comes as no suprise.

    Its hard not to greet yet another ill-considered reform with a sigh of resignation. Each one seems to come from out of the blue with no consultation and an absolute disregard for the opinions of the people who will be affected.

  2. Another aspect of the current regime is that done deals have a habit of getting undone. Home Info Packs, Planning Gain Supplement, not to mention the handover of power from Blair to Brown. So I wouldn't be surprised if this reform gets shelved at some point but at the moment it seems to be a done deal.