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Reserved matters applications: How to get yours approved

If you've got outline planning permission, it might feel like you've done all the work - but that's far from the case. Here's how to make sure that reserved matters don't trip you up

21 January 2024
4 minutes read

Have you ever wondered what reserved matters in planning means?

Once you have outline planning permission, you have three years in which to apply for reserved matters approval. So in other words, having an outline planning permission doesn’t mean you are ready to go ahead and build. The council has agreed to the idea of what you want to do – but now they need to consent to the details.

It’s easy to think that getting outline permission is the important part – and for difficult sites that might be true. But that doesn’t mean you should treat reserved matters lightly – refusals from the council could bring your project to an abrupt halt.

So here’s our guide to the reserved matters planning application process and our advice on what you need to do make sure that you get approval.

What are reserved matters?

Reserved matters are the details that you – or whoever put in the original application (eg, the previous owner of the land) – have chosen to leave out of an outline planning application. They can include:

  • Access
  • Appearance
  • Landscaping
  • Layout
  • Scale

As you can see, that list could potentially take in everything short of the core principle of development itself.

The local planning authority might be happy with the idea of housing on your site – but how much (scale)? What will the houses look like (appearance)? How will they be arranged (layout)? And how will cars, other vehicles and pedestrians get in and out of the site (access)?

These won’t be complete unknowns: an outline planning application has to contain upper and lower limits for scale along with a rough sense of layout and access points. But there are still a lot of opportunities to leave things vague. And if you’re a pessimist, that can sound like a lot of opportunities for the council to say “no” when you make your reserved matters applications.

And that can happen. But often – having granted outline permission – the council will be working with you to get the project moving forward. Especially when it comes to residential development, the council will have housing targets to meet and plots that already have permission granted will be expected to do most of the work to meet those targets.

Applications for the different reserved matters can be made together or at separate times. Later applications can be made if the details change.

How long does a reserved matters application take?

A reserved matters application, like a full planning application, should be decided on within eight weeks by the council.

Reserved matters applications, unless there is a specific condition about a specific matter in the decision letter, need to be made within three years of you receiving your outline planning permission. You have to start building within two years of the final reserved matters approval.

How to get reserved matters approval

Ideally, your outline planning permission and reserved matters will be thought through together. For a start, that will prevent a situation where the council decides that your reserved matters applications don’t match your outline permission, and potentially puts you in the position of having to apply for permission all over again.

And you should include enough information in your outline application to make sure that the council is agreeing to what you want to build – without spending too much time on details that can be sorted out later and allowing you some flexibility. We think, for instance, that if you can deal with access at the outline stage, you can avoid major potential delays just when you’re ready to start building.

But that ideal situation isn’t always possible. For a start, as we explain in our outline planning permission post, one of the reasons landowners like outline planning permission is that it raises the value of the plot enabling them to sell it on at a profit.

Which means that the person or organisation applying for reserved matters approval will not be the same person or organisation who applied for outline planning permission.

So here are key things to remember when you make reserved matters applications:

Read the outline planning permission application and decision carefully

With reserved matters, you are effectively filling the blanks left in your outline planning application. It follows, then, that your reserved matters application needs to build on the outline application and should not contradict it.

If the council believes that there is a clash between the outline planning permission and the reserved matters application, it is likely to refuse the application. And if you do want to change aspects of the permission, you need to apply for an amendment to the outline permission.

Meanwhile, the decision from the council granting permission will contain conditions. These might specify some particular issues that need to be addressed in the reserved matters. One example is the percentage and type of affordable housing that needs to be included in the scheme.

Equally, though, the local planning authority might have missed its chance to restrict some aspects of the scheme. If the council didn’t put a condition in place about the affordable housing mix, case history has established that it can’t reject your reserved matters application because it doesn’t feel that there is enough affordable housing.

On the government’s list of the ‘Behaviour that may lead to an award of costs’ against councils during planning appeals, you’ll find:

  • refusing to approve reserved matters when the objections relate to issues that should already have been considered at the outline stage

That’s why it’s worth having good planning advice so you know exactly what the council can and can’t legitimately object to in your reserved matters application.

Consider the setting

With the bigger schemes of the kind that use the outline planning permission path, it’s very easy to think about your project as it relates to its own elements. Think of a large model standing on a table as investors walk around admiring it. What’s being forgotten? Take a look at a selection of refused matters applications and one frequent answer is: the streets (or countryside) around your project.

Especially with the buildings on the edge of your site, you need to consider how they fit in with the local character, or at least what the council and the kind of residents who write objection comments feel is the local character. And thinking about how your scheme fits in its setting isn’t just useful for smoothing the path to planning permission, it’s also part of your long-term contribution to creating successful places.

Have pre-application meetings with the council

For any development that’s either large or complicated (or both), it’s always best if you get the local authority’s opinion before you submit a planning application. That advice is just as relevant to reserved matters as it is to full planning applications.

You need to have as clear an idea as possible about what the council will and won’t agree to. Pre-application discussions do not eliminate the risk of a nasty surprise when your project is considered by the planning committee, but they do lessen those risks substantially.

Take it seriously

The term ‘reserved matters’ can make it sound like it consists of stuff to be mopped up at the end of the planning process. Instead, reserved matters contains the substance of your project.

This is where you make the real decisions about places where people are going to live or work or both. Therefore, your applications need care and attention, and often a wide range of expert supporting documents. You should have detailed evidence to pre-empt any questions that the planning officers or planning committee might ask.

A reserved matters application should include:

Along with reports by specialist firms, for example:

  • Daylight/sunlight analysis
  • Transport planning
  • Traffic management and logistics plan
  • Landscaping statement
  • Sustainability statement
  • Viability statement
  • Environmental report
  • Wind and microclimate assessment
  • Heritage statement
  • Statement of community involvement
  • Arboricultural survey
  • Surface water run-off report
  • BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes report
  • Preliminary ecological appraisal
  • Environmental noise survey

If you are refused, you can appeal

As mentioned above, councils do end up in front of the Planning Inspectorate for trying to use reserved matters applications as an opportunity to call the whole scheme – which already has outline permission – into question.

This can happen particularly if local opinion, which missed the original application, has rallied against the reserved matters submission. Or there has been a change in the political balance of the council in the time between your outline application and your reserved matters one.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you 

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based RIBA chartered architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. With a dedicated focus in proven design and planning strategies, and expertise in residential extensions, conversions and new build homes, we help developers achieve ROI-focused results.

If you would like us to help you with your reserved matters applications, or any other aspect of the planning process, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Nicole Ipek Guler, Charted Town Planner and Director of Urbanist Architecture

Nicole I. Guler

Nicole leads our planning team and specialises in tricky projects, whether those involve listed buildings, constrained urban sites or Green Belt plots. She has a very strong track of winning approval through planning appeals.

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