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Planning applications explained

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

A developer - whether seeking to change the use of a building, build an extension to a single house or a whole new village with shops and schools - has to apply for planning permission. They do this by submitting a planning application to the local planning authority, which is normally the council for that area. The local planning authority decides whether the planning application should be granted permission and allowed to go ahead.

Planning applications can be made through the Planning Portal. A developer or agent on their behalf, often a planning consultant, will submit the planning application. Depending on the complexity and scale of the planning application, as well as architects, other experts can be involved in the preparation of the application. The team might include transport specialists, ecologists and surveyors who are experts in development viability to name just a few.

Before making a planning application a developer might ask the local planning authority for advice and feedback on a proposal. This is called pre-application advice. A developer might also ask for views of occupiers of neighbouring properties on their proposals before making an application - particularly for larger schemes

There are different types of planning applications. Planning applications must address national requirements for content, including plans and drawings and a design and access statement amongst other information. In addition, councils usually have other local requirements on top of these national requirements, such as for certain studies or documents to be prepared to explain aspects of the planning application and aid decision making. These local requirements are published by councils on their websites. If you Google planning and “Local Validation List”, you will see lots of examples of these.

Before we look at what happens once a planning application is submitted, it is important to highlight that not all development needs planning permission. Planning permission is not needed for certain changes of use if the existing and proposed use are in the same overall use class. In addition, some types of development are permitted development and do not need planning permission, or may just need a lighter touch assessment known as a prior approval process. What is permitted development is nationally defined, but can be removed locally by a measure known as an Article 4 Direction.

When planning permission is needed, no development can take place until permission has been granted.

The development management process

The planning application, once submitted to the council, will be checked by staff (officers) employed by it. They will check whether the application is complete and meets the national requirement or local requirements and that the correct fee is paid. This process is known as validation. Officers will then publish the planning application on an online planning register, which is a register of all planning applications received by the Council. If you Google ‘search planning applications’ and the name of a Council area you are interested in, this will usually bring up the online planning register (and it can be easier than navigating from the home page of the council’s websites).

The online planning register will usually look a bit like this:

online planning register

Each planning application is given a unique reference and the online planning register contains the planning application form along with all drawings and technical documents that are part of the application.

Assessing a planning application

A planning officer or ‘case officer’ is normally allocated to assess the planning application and make recommendations to the decision makers on whether the application should be granted permission or refused. They will assess the site and surrounding area and review the proposal, consulting with experts in their own Council or the County Council (if in an area with a County Council above it). Importantly, they will consider the application against the development plan for the area. The development plan - usually called a ‘Local Plan’ - is also prepared by the Council. You can find out more about about Local Plans.

Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

The council will consult the public, including occupiers of neighbouring properties, about the development proposed in the planning application. National planning practice guidance provides information about requirements for consultation. Planning law also requires the council to consult certain national organisations for some types of application. These statutory consultees include organisations such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and Historic England who will offer expert advice.

As well as considering the design of any proposed development, the planning officer will also consider the impacts on transport and other infrastructure. Homes England has created some fact sheets which give a flavour of the way in which the impact of development on the need for transport facilities, schools and health facilities are considered as part of the development process for new homes. In practice the approach may be differ in different places for different schemes as there will be different local plan policies and differences in the development context, including in relation to infrastructure provision.

The planning officer will write up their assessment of the application in a report which recommends the grant or refusal of the planning permission. Where a grant of application is being considered, the officer will consider whether planning conditions are required. Any affordable housing required as part of the development will normally be secured by a planning obligation (the different types of affordable housing secured through planning are explained in a Homes England fact sheet). Other planning obligations to mitigate or manage the developments impacts based on the assessment may be negotiated between the council and the developer. These planning obligations are secured by a legal agreement known as a Section 106 agreement or a unilateral undertaking. For more information about Section 106 see our Section 106 Explainer.

Deciding on a planning application

Officers make recommendations on whether permission should be granted or refused.

Councillors, the elected officials that run councils, are responsible for making decisions, including on plannig (see Understand how your council works). But in practice, most decisions are delegated to council officers by the Councillors and for only more complex applications are considered by smaller groups of councillors as part of planning committees that meet publicly to determine planning applications.

Councillors don’t alway have to go along with the recommendation of officers (see House of Common Briefing Paper 'Must planning committees follow officers' advice in reaching decisions?'). But there are rules for decision makers about how they take planning decisions to ensure these are undertaken, on behalf of communities, in a fair, impartial and transparent way. These rules are explained further in Probity in planning: Advice for councillors and officers making planning decisions.

The decision on whether to grant or refuse permission is set out in a formal decision notice. It will list all the conditions that apply to it (see National Planning Practice Guidance). If there are planning obligations these are set out in a Section 106 agreement or undertaking alongside the planning decision notice. Sometimes preparing this Section 106 agreement can delay the issue of the decision notice to a considerable time after the report has been considered by a committee.

Decision notices and any Section 106 agreement or undertaking are both added to the online planning register along with the rest of the original application.

If permission has been granted in the decision notice, the development can start, but there may be certain conditions or planning obligations that need to be complied with ahead of this. A Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) payment might also be due (see our CIL Explainer).

When the Council refuses a planning application

If permission has been refused, the decision notice will be issued confirming this and giving reasons for the refusal based on policies in the local plan (development plan).

An applicant has the right to appeal against refusal of a planning application. Appeals are made to the Planning Inspectorate. This short film explains more about the Planning Inspectorate:

The appeal can be in writing or hearing which involves a round-the-table discussion that will be led by the planning inspector or a more formal legal ‘courtroom like’ public inquiry (see Procedural Guide: Planning appeals). Public inquiries are limited to the most complex cases , and cross examination of planning officers and the applicants team by barristers. This Planning Inspectorate video explains more about how a public inquiry works:

Learn More

If you are just starting out in a planning role or on a planning project, you can sign up for the course Planning in 60 Minutes: A simple guide to town planning (England). The course covers planning applications, local plans, developer contributions (section 106 and CIL) and more.

Ready for a role in development planning or development management?

Head over to ‘Work In Planning Jobs Board’ to see the latest opportunities to work on planning applications or appeals.


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