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Cohousing Series: Navigating the Planning System

09 April 2024

This article is the latest in our cohousing series following our team member as she develops her own cohousing scheme.

One of our team members, Laura Moss, talks about her experiences developing a small cohousing project in Cumbria. Here, she outlines how her group navigated the planning system for their development.

For the previous articles in the series, please see here:

Part 1: establishing a cohousing community.
Part 2: setting up a cohousing community: the early days.
Part 3: communications, conflicts and developing an effective governance framework.

Although I am a solicitor, the legalities of the planning system were a relative mystery to me before I started developing my own cohousing community. It was an incredibly steep learning curve, working out the difference between outline planning permission, full planning permission and reserved matters, not to mention how on earth you go about launching a planning appeal. I would highly recommend appointing a planning consultant if you are grappling with issues like this, because they can really help guide you through the process.

Outline planning permission vs reserved matters

In our case, we bought land which already had outline planning consent. This is consent in principle, i.e. it sets out the bare bones of what is permitted on a particular plot of land. In our case, the outline planning consent permitted the development of five detached dwellings. It leaves the finer details of a development to what is known as ‘reserved matters’. Reserved matters would typically include details of the appearance, layout and design of the individual properties.
Outline planning consents generally have an expiry date. If a development is not commenced within a certain period of time, the consent expires. In our case, the planning consent expired not long after we bought the land and we had to apply for fresh consent.

Obtaining planning permission

This process was convoluted, to say the least. Our land includes an old farmhouse and several outbuildings, all of which are in a poor condition and will need to be demolished. Some were historically used for commercial and residential purposes and they include a number of ‘chalets’, i.e. static caravans bolted together to form rudimentary dwellings. However, the Covid-19 pandemic meant that we could not visit the site, so the buildings fell into even more disrepair.

The planning officer who was assigned our case visited the site and initially argued that the dwellings had been abandoned. As we are classed as open countryside, this would have meant that we would be unlikely to be granted planning consent for the new homes we wished to build. After a very tense few days, he accepted our argument that the site had not in fact been abandoned, meaning that replacement dwellings could be constructed, based on what was already there.

The planning officer then referred the decision to the planning committee, made up of elected councillors. His report to the planning committee recommended that the cumulative floor area of our dwellings should be limited to the floor area of the dwellings to be replaced. This would result in much smaller properties than we had originally planned.

We attended the planning committee meeting to put forward our views on the planning officers’ report. However, as is often the case, the planning committee accepted the planning officer’s proposals and granted consent, with the suggested cap on the floor area. Unfortunately, this cap also applied to anything which could be built under permitted development rights, i.e. garages, sheds, greenhouses and any extensions.

Although smaller properties mean fewer resources are needed to build, run and maintain them, we felt that the cap was too restrictive, particular as most of us work from home, have lots of outdoor equipment to store and intend to grow substantial amounts of food, so greenhouses, and outbuildings are important. We therefore decided to appeal this planning condition.

Applying to vary a planning condition

We were advised to apply to the planning authority to vary the planning condition, rather than appeal the entire planning consent. The risk with an outright appeal was that the validity of the entire planning consent may be open to challenge, whereas if we applied for a variation of the condition, and this was then refused, we could appeal that refusal. This would mean that any appeal was limited to only that condition, rather than the whole consent itself.

Appealing a planning application

Predictably, the application to vary the condition was refused (it is heard by the same planning authority who grants the consent). We then put together an application to appeal this refusal.

Happily, we achieved a partial win. We put forward various conditions we would be happy to live with, and our hunch is that the planning inspector chose one of these, as a way of striking a balance between all the various arguments. Although we still have the cap on floor area, this no longer includes structures which would be permitted under permitted development rights.

Applying for reserved matters

Once this long-winded process was completed, it was then down to the members of our cohousing community to submit their applications for reserved matters consent.

In many other cohousing schemes, dwellings are all centrally designed and built by the community as a whole. However, we operate in a slightly different way. Each individual household is responsible for the design and construction of their own property. This means that there is much greater flexibility. Those members who want to be more hands on and build the homes themselves, can do, whereas those of us who think this sounds like a nightmare can appoint a builder to do that instead.
We have now all had our reserved matters applications approved.

Applying for an exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy

The final piece of the puzzle was to each accept liability for the Community Infrastructure Levy (‘CIL’) on our individual plots, and then claim the self-build exemption for this. We have a short article about this here.

This means that we can finally start demolishing the existing buildings on the site, and building replacements. Planning consent and the CIL exemption must be in place before any demolition could take place, so very little changed in the appearance of our development for a couple of years. However, over the last few months, progress has been much more visibly apparent with buildings coming down and remediation works starting. More updates about this will follow in the future.”

Laura Moss View Biography

Laura Moss


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