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Garage Music: Planning and Redeveloping Lock-up Garages | David Kemp

application timetable garages planning planning permission pre-application town planning Oct 25, 2021

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’ Albert Einstein

Redeveloping Garages

Lock-up off-street garages can be seen around many of our towns and cities. They are a throw-back to earlier days of town planning but are now largely obsolete and bring with them a number of other problems.

Much of the time, they are too small to park a car in and tend not to be used much (if at all), other than as spare domestic storage or as a dumping ground for old furniture and rubbish. This creates a neglected and abandoned feel to some roads or estates, which can in turn attract anti-social problems such as drug users and dangerous waste. The fabric of these garages is also often deteriorating, often with asbestos roofs, often harming the character and appearance of a street.

As we look more closely at regenerating our towns and cities, improving environmental sustainability and reducing car emissions, it makes sense to look at these opportunities, whether on a larger scale in redeveloping blocks of garages on housing estates, or on a smaller scale where they create an opportunity for infill development. 

 

Pre-application with the Council

So, all this makes sense and any proposal in front of the Council should be a ‘virtually guaranteed’ planning permission…?

It is a great starting point. However, it will still leave open plenty of scope for the Council to argue different aspects around the scheme.

We submitted a scheme for pre-application to Wandsworth Borough Council as 2 x 2-bedroom dwellings.

The Council considered a number of issues that you can always expect would come up – such as window alignment or external appearance, scale and bulk of proposed extensions to the rear, and materials. Generally, if the planning success of a scheme is largely down to these issues, then they are all negotiable. 

However, the key point that officers came back with was that they felt that the site was ‘too crammed’ for two dwellings, and they thought that the site should comprise a single-family 3-bedroom house instead.

This would not have been a viable way forward for this site, and so we had to try and push back on this.

 

Following Up: Testing the Officers

The first thing to do when trying to push back on what officers say in a pre-application is to simply ask: “Is there a policy justification for this?” 

After suggesting to officers that there was no such justification, we managed to essentially avoid the final pre-application response requiring a single 3-bedroom house on site.

The tone of any follow-up with officers is very important, even when seeking to test them on critical aspects of policy affecting the principle of what might be built on site. Here are some key points or perhaps ‘golden rules’: 

  1. Try to understand the rationale for the objection/issue – It needs to relate to a planning purpose or clear planning objective.
  2. Is it supported by policy? – Without support in policy, then it is easily challenged, but check the supporting text to any relevant policies (e.g. on dwelling mix) as well as the policy text itself.
  3. Try to speak with a policy officer BEFORE speaking again with the case officer or their team leader – They might be able to confirm by email that their policies do not require at least one family dwelling on site.
  4. Write to the case officer (copy in the team leader) to put your explanation to them having also confirmed to them (either with or without policy officer support) that there is no policy restriction – You need to do this before they settle their pre-application response, if possible.
  5. I find it is most effective when coming at this from the point of view of a ‘Columbo of Planning’! – You do the detective work on the policies first, look for witnesses in support (e.g. policy officers), but then have a friendly but ‘intensely enquiring’ approach to the case officer.

  

What Do Local Councillors Think?

Normally, even with a relatively small project such as this, there is an expectation amongst officers and often with local councillors that a ‘good developer’ will canvass the scheme locally first before submitting the application.

This might normally encompass a local leaflet drop, and a public exhibition held at a local centre during the daytime and in the evening, inviting members of the public and seeking their views, as well as local councillors. However, this was simply not possible due to the pandemic and instead we sent emails and letters to immediate neighbours only (not the wider area or along the street, as we might otherwise have done), and directly to the three local ward councillors.

This was a good early test of the scheme, managed local expectations and became a useful ‘touch point’ between our client and the neighbour to the left of the site. 

Many look up on any form of public informal consultation as a ‘rod for their own back’. In my opinion, if used well in respect of a well-planned and thought-out and well-designed scheme, then it can smooth the path of an application. Locals feel engaged and involved, and it avoids unnecessary misunderstandings regarding the proposal. It also provides a platform to push home the negatives about the current use or development on site and emphasises the positive aspects in the proposal.

 

Managing the Application Timetable

When any planning application goes in, you are only no more than ‘half-way’ there:

  • You need to get it registered and validated and chase this up to avoid weeks passing without Council action.
  • Be ready to chase the officers up for their thoughts 3-4 weeks after the validation, just as the minimum public consultation period draws to a close* (*People can still make objections after this until the final decision is made or written up for approval).
  • Be responsive and be ready to compromise on design matters for the sake of getting the permission over the line – Obviously, stand firm on some points where you need to, but you may need to be creative about solutions.
  • Get to a final ‘yes’ as quickly as possible – Easier said than done!

This final point is of course all part of generally getting your permission ‘over the line’. There are a number of points to settle when you are coming to this point in the application.

 

Getting It Over the Line

Officers raised two main issues in the closing stages of the application – the roof line and the need for more windows to the façade, especially as they were concerned about the future management and care of the proposed ‘green wall’ between the semi-detached houses proposed.

Together with the architects and the client, we came forward with proposed design changes that not only delivered the effect that the planners wanted, but also were probably more cost-effective for the client without compromising on the sustainability and energy credentials of the scheme.

Personally, I liked the ‘green wall’ in the scheme, but there’s not much point in retaining it in a scheme that gets refused planning permission!

Once the design was settled, it was then just a matter of settling pre-commencement conditions with officers and then obtaining the final permission, which all happened within about 4-5 days after the design was finally agreed with officers.

 

 

‘Working with’ Officers

 There is somewhat of a ‘dance’ that goes on all the time with the Council’s planners in most development schemes. However, one should never lose sight of the importance of trying to work with the planners as far as possible. Once matters of principle can be agreed, then most of the rest is negotiation.

The local planning authority generally wants to go to appeal even less than you do! It drains Council and officer time and resources and often costs them money that they do not have. Therefore, establish a good relationship with the officers, test the scheme with them by all means and the parameters of their initial advice, but mutual respect and understanding, underpinned by a sound policy footing goes a long way toward securing planning permission.

The Destination Makes It Worth It! 

Planning permissions can deliver huge value to developers and investors, and there are few things as rewarding as transforming our towns and cities and neighbourhoods in a way that we can all be proud of. It can be a frustrating and testing process at times, but when we look back at what we started with and what we finally get over the line, more often than not, it is definitely worth the journey!