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How to get retrospective planning permission for work that’s done

Can you get planning permission after you’ve built something you weren’t supposed to?

That’s the question almost 40,000 people have found themselves asking over the past three years, according to new research.

Retrospective planning permission, as the label suggests, is planning permission sought after a development has been built.  

Approximately 39,200 retrospective planning applications have been filed since 2017 – around 35 a day – according to insurer Churchill. This may be just the tip of the iceberg, as many others will be gambling on not applying and some may be trying to ride out the so called ‘ four-year rule’ on planning enforcement.

Robert Fidler built an impressive castle-style home but was discovered to have kept it hidden under a  stack of hay bales – because the building was concealed he could not benefit from the four-year rule on enforcement

But applying for permission after building work has started or even been completed doesn’t always work, with one in eight retrospective applications rejected by local authorities. 

Those who have their applications turned down have likely had to restore their property to the way it was before, shouldering all the expenses that may incur.  

These retrospective planning applications can be submitted by the developer if they realise they’ve built something they weren’t supposed to – but can also be ordered by the local authority once they realise something has been built or extended that they weren’t aware of.   

What are the rules? 

In most cases, a development becomes immune from any council enforcement action if the council fails to do anything about it within four years of the building work taking place.

If it is discovered however, a local planning authority will demand you make a retrospective application – and there’s no guarantee permission will be granted.

If this retrospective application fails, the council can issue an ‘enforcement notice’, requiring you to put things back to the way they were.

It’s against the law to disobey these notices, unless you can successfully appeal against it. However, if an appeal is rejected and you continue to refuse to comply, you may be prosecuted.

Approximately 39,200 retrospective planning applications have been filed since 2017 (stock image)

Approximately 39,200 retrospective planning applications have been filed since 2017 (stock image)

What’s the catch?

Some people, such as the Surrey farmer who built a secret castle behind a pile of haystacks, may be tempted to conceal a development until the four-year time period has ran out.

This probably won’t work, however.

If a person is found to have deliberately concealed a breach of planning rules, the four-year time limit doesn’t kick in until the breach is discovered. 

On top of this, a person who has undertaken unauthorised development only has one opportunity to obtain planning permission after the event.

>> You can apply for retrospective planning permission by clicking here.  

What can you do without planning permission?

You may have already undertaken some building works and aren’t sure whether or not you should have sought planning permission first.

Retrospective planning permission rejection rate by region 
Region Rejection rate
East Midlands 12%
East of England 12%
London 21%
North East 10%
North West 14%
Northern Ireland 3%
Scotland 3%
South East 18%
South West 11%
Wales 28%
West Midlands 11%
Yorkshire and Humber 9%
Source: Churchill  

Fear not, there are plenty of things you can do without having to seek permission. These are known as the ‘permitted development rights’ on your home.

Remodelling the interior of you home, for example, rarely needs permission so long as you aren’t expanding the building’s footprint – and even then, there are some exceptions.

Replacing old windows and doors is usually fine, as long as there aren’t any conditions attached to the original permission, and as long your building isn’t listed.

Converting an attached building, such as a garage, to a living space is also permitted, if you’re not expanding the building’s footprint.

Conservatories, extensions, and orangeries are a little more complicated. There are instances where you won’t need permission, but the building will have to fall within strict size requirements. 

The same goes for porches, and two-story extensions in some cases. Size requirements for builds that don’t need planning permission can be found here. 

Loft conversions generally don't require permission, unless your plans exceed certain limits

Loft conversions generally don’t require permission, unless your plans exceed certain limits

Are the rules different for houses and flats?

If you are renovating or making changes to a flat or maisonette, these buildings do not fall into your permitted development rights. 

Making alterations without permission will also affect your insurance 

Making alterations to your home without the correct planning permission in place may invalidate your insurance in the event that you have to make a claim.  

On top of this, you’ll need to tell your insurer even if you DO have permission.

Forgetting to do so may mean your home insurance policy is no longer valid.

Churchill’s Pritpal Powar said: ‘It’s important for householders to advise their insurance provider on any works they are planning, to ensure they have the correct cover in place for their property.’

This means you’ll have to seek planning permission for all changes to the property. 

Most flats are also leasehold, meaning for most projects, you’ll also need to seek the consent of the freeholder. 

You’ll need to get planning permission if you want to convert a home into multiple flats.  

Pritpal Powar, head of Churchill home insurance, said: ‘Homeowners are increasingly choosing to expand their current homes to accommodate growing family sizes, rather than move to a new house. 

‘However, before beginning any development, we encourage people to check whether they need planning permission and if they do, to wait until this has been granted before starting work.’ 

If you need to double check, you can contact your local planning authority by clicking here. 

The planning portal website set up by the Department for Communities and Local Government has all the up-to-date rules – you can find it by clicking here. 

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