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Saving energy - and effort

16 July 07

Are the Scottish Executive's proposals to relax controls on householder developments radical enough to deliver its goals?

by Fiona Gordon

Householder developments, a term which encompasses small-scale improvements to domestic properties, make up half of all planning applications across Scotland, an estimated 24,000 per year. Of these, approximately 97% are approved. Two aims of the current planning system reform process are to take the focus away from smaller scale developments, freeing up the system to deal with more strategic issues, and to deliver sustainable development.

The Scottish Executive has therefore recently published two linked reports, reviewing the General Permitted Development Order 1992 (GPDO). One report focuses solely on the categories of permitted householder development; the other on broader permitted rights, including proposals to encourage eco-friendly microgeneration.

Do these proposals go far enough? And can they actually meet dual policy aims of delivering sustainable development and freeing up planning resources?

Domestic issues

The current system of permitted development is recognised as complex to administrate and understand. Significant local authority resources are required to deal with queries from householders on the application of the Order and then follow up breaches (unwitting or not) through enforcement action. One aim of the current planning reform process is therefore to simplify the system, make it easier for the public to understand, and free up important planning resources. The first report on the GPDO, relating to householder development, was published by the Scottish Executive in December 2006.

At present, permitted development regarding houses is split into six classes depending on the type of alteration or improvement proposed. Alterations and extensions are restricted by height, floorspace and curtilage dimensions, based on the dimensions of the original house. It is clear that calculations based on these factors lead to unnecessary complexity and uncertainty. The size of the original house is hardly the easiest starting point. How many people could state the footprint of their house in square feet?

The Scottish Executive’s review suggested options for change. Those which attracted the most support were relaxing the existing limitations or granting deemed approval to all householder development. In the end, a complete lifting of all restrictions was deemed too radical. It was recognised that the main planning objection issues for householder developments are usually their impact on adjoining neighbours’ amenity and visual intrusion on the wider residential environment. The review therefore proposes rationalising the existing categories, making them easier to understand and implement. This is in turn intended to reduce resource requirements by cutting the volume of planning appeals, development enquiries and enforcement activity.

It is estimated that the proposals will reduce the number of householder applications by around 38%, a reduction in real terms of approximately 10,000 applications per year, or 300 per planning authority. Obviously this is welcome, but is it enough to make a real difference to resourcing within planning authorities?

DIY carbon reduction?

We all know that climate change is a huge issue and ambitious targets have to be met. However the planning system has hitherto been a barrier, not a conduit, to domestic green energy generation. The second report on the GPDO, published in March 2007, proposes extending permitted development rights to microgeneration, including wind, biomass, and ground, air and water heat pumps. This is helpful, but is it enough to have hordes descending on their nearest DIY store intent on purchasing wind turbines or solar panels?

The fact is that home energy generation is not easily achieved. If we could guarantee that a home installation (at a reasonable cost, of course) would provide all our energy needs and free us from our power bills, we would all be doing it. Avoiding the expense and uncertainty of the planning process removes one barrier, but it is just one of many. Even with limited government funding, microgeneration is an expensive enterprise, particularly at the outset. For those willing to take the financial risk, the benefits can take years to balance against the initial expenditure. For instance, to generate all the electricity for a typical house, a 2.5 kilowatt wind turbine would be required, costing around £12,000 to install and saving between £250 and £500 annually. Those you might currently see for sale in B&Q cost less, but generate less power too.

Only a start

The dual policy aims of delivering sustainable development and freeing up the planning system to deal effectively with larger commercial projects are not easy to achieve. Simplifying the categories of permitted development would be helpful, but it is questionable whether the proposals are radical enough to free up significant resources. Creating permitted development rights for microgeneration appears to be a useful incentive to homeowners to start saving the planet, but on its own is unlikely to make us do it. It seems it is not just the cost (and hassle) of a planning application that is putting us off.

Fiona Gordon, Planning & Environment, Anderson Strathern