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Applying for retrospective planning permission: Everything you need to know

Have you built a house or renovated your property without planning permission? Read this article and learn how to apply for retrospective planning permission

21 January 2024
4 minutes read

Did you build without getting planning permission?

If you did, you need to act fast to avoid getting in trouble...

In a moment, we’re going to explain what retrospective planning permission is and when you should and shouldn’t make a retrospective planning application.

But before we do, we have a message specifically for those of you who have already received a planning contravention enforcement notice or been visited by a planning enforcement officer. We know this can be a very stressful and upsetting experience.

Nevertheless, you can’t dodge the facts: if you have received an enforcement notice, your council may ask you to demolish the building works you or the previous owner of the property have undertaken. And if you refuse, then they may get a court order to bring in the bulldozers themselves.

If you don’t act, you may be prosecuted. Court action and legal penalties such as fines can be imposed for not complying with such a notice.

Therefore, you need to either make a retrospective planning application or submit an appeal against your planning enforcement notice.

If you have had a planning enforcement notice...

You might feel concerned about the work involved and have uncertainties depending on your knowledge and experience of the planning system. We know how difficult it is but here at Urbanist Architecture, we can help.

Getting a planning enforcement notice does not mean that your building is doomed. With our retrospective planning service or appeal service, we will do everything we can to get your planning permission on your behalf.

You may still have time to stop the planning enforcement action but you need to take action immediately.

We’re going to say this one more time: Carrying out building works or a change of use without the necessary planning permission can result in court action and legal penalties.

How you can avoid planning enforcement action

If you're worried about the impact of a planning enforcement notice on your property, we want to reassure you that we're here to help.

If you're experiencing planning difficulties due to your unauthorised development, we’ve got two main routes that could help.

  • Appealing against your planning enforcement notice
  • Submitting a retrospective planning application

We can help you apply for retrospective planning permission or appeal against your council's planning enforcement notice if you have undertaken the following works without the required planning permission in place:

  • Unauthorised construction of buildings
  • Unauthorised construction of extensions
  • Unauthorised change of use
  • Unauthorised display of advertisement
  • Unauthorised works to listed buildings
  • Unauthorised works to protected trees

Talk to us now – this isn’t something you should be trying to sort out on your own.

A note on appealing enforcement notices. Legislation changes from October 2023 mean that now, if you are refused planning permission, but choose to build anyway and are then handed an enforcement notice, you will not be able to appeal that enforcement notice. This means you may have to demolish any works and return the site to its original state. The only time you can appeal in this context is if it’s been over two years since your original planning application was refused (or following appeal, if relevant to you)  - full details can be found in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act legislation.

What is retrospective planning permission?

Retrospective planning permission is planning permission sought after a development has been built. Planning regulations allow landlords to apply for planning permission retrospectively after they have carried out unauthorised works or a use, and the planning law requires Local Planning Authorities to accept and consider them.

It is not unusual for an enforcement officer to invite you to submit a retrospective planning application during the course of your planning enforcement investigation to allow you to regularise the unauthorised material change of use of the building or development.

If you submit a retrospective planning application, your case will be considered on its own planning merits in the same way as other applications and are not more likely to be approved or refused because you have submitted your application after you have carried out unauthorised works.

You may secure planning permission retrospectively if your application proposal is considered to be acceptable. However, if this is not the case and permission is refused, then it is very likely that planning enforcement action will follow.

Why landlords receive planning enforcement notices

Imagine you are about to start on a building project. You're very excited and eager to get going. However, there's some bureaucracy to get out of the way – planning permission.

When you've got your plans drawn up and your building team organised, waiting for planning permission can be a dampener. In some cases, you can see why people may have jumped the gun.

In other cases, the owner of the property simply hasn’t checked properly. Maybe they spoke to their cousin who didn’t need planning permission to build an extension, and didn’t realise that different rules apply to their home.

Those are just a couple of the reasons why people can end up having to apply for retrospective planning permission. However, you shouldn’t assume that retrospective approval is a done deal.

What if my retrospective planning application gets refusal?

It means you have a big problem.

The council might ask you to revert your property back to its original state, incurring all the expenses to boot. And, at this point, it’s probably too late to think about the 'ten-year rule'. If you’ve applied for retrospective planning permission and been refused, the local authority now knows about your unauthorised works and will take action.

But before you panic, let’s look at those numbers again. What they’re saying is that in 88% of cases retrospective planning consent is granted, and if you’ve got good advice, that becomes even more likely. So let’s explore the rules, regulations and quirks of retrospective planning.

Is there anything you can legally build without planning permission?

Yes. Many basic works are covered by permitted development rights. For starters, upgrading your home's interior. As long as it doesn't change the footprint of the property, it's usually within your rights as a property owner.

However, there are some exceptions to look out for. If the building is listed, for instance, there will be specific conditions. For example, you may have to apply for listed building consent to make changes to windows or doors.

Other things that are permissible include converting a structure that's attached to your house into an extra living space. Therefore, if you want to turn your garage into a guest room or a children's playroom, that's absolutely fine.

However, things like conservatories or porches are a bit more complicated. Whether or not you'll need planning permission will depend on the size of the construction, so always check the rules with your local authority.

The rules surrounding retrospective planning permission

If, however, the work you did isn’t covered by permitted development rights, then you will have to do something now. There are two main routes towards making a residential project lawful after it has already been built.

One is the four-year rule*: if you have been using the property for the same purpose for four years and (this is crucial) can prove it and meet certain other conditions, then you can apply for a Certificate of Lawfulness.

But if you haven’t reached four years and want to sell the property, or your records are incomplete, or your neighbours have complained to the council or you suspect they are going to, then the four-year rule is no help.

In that case, you will have to apply for retrospective planning permission.

Another important detail of this law is that if you are found to be deliberately concealing a development – like the farmer who attempted to conceal a castle behind hay bales – the ten-year period doesn't begin until the development is discovered. Once that has happened, it's more than likely that the council will take action because the project was wittingly concealed.

*A note on certificates of lawfulness and enforcement: the four-year rule, which currently sets a four year expiration date on enforcement of unlawful use of residential properties, will soon be replaced by a ten-year rule.

This change is part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act which became law in October 2023. However, this particular part of the legislation is not yet in effect, as it is awaiting further appointment of regulations by the Secretary of State. As no timeline has been established for these regulations, the rule change could be implemented tomorrow, or it could be implemented months from now. 

For this reason, if you are considering applying for a certificate of lawfulness using the four-year rule, we’d recommend moving quickly. Our team has successfully assisted with many certificates of lawfulness, and we would be happy to assist with achieving your project goals.

If you can, don't rely on retrospective planning permission

Local planning authorities are committed to protecting the environment from unauthorised development and they will investigate alleged breaches of planning control.

So, if you’re lucky enough to be reading this BEFORE you start any work on your property, we have a very simple message for you: get your planning permission sorted out now.

Retrospective planning permission is possible, but you don’t ever want to be in a position where you are worrying about enforcement notices.

Whatever you are doing to your property, check whether you need planning permission. And if your project is covered by permitted development rights, do make sure you are fulfilling all the conditions.

If you have the slightest doubts about anything to do with changes to your property, consult an architect or a planner.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based RIBA chartered architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. We have a proven track record in obtaining retrospective planning permission and appealing against planning enforcement notices. Get in touch now – and in your case we really do mean now. We can help.

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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