This is draft number 101, and long. My longest blog post to date! It’s taken a lot of revisions and thoughts to convey my points in anything other than a very negative manner. Our experience with Cornwall Council’s Planning department can be summarised as: stressful, miserable and unprofessional. In this post I hope to salvage something positive by sharing tips that helped us. I fear many people endure a similar experience with Cornwall Planning. They’re then so relieved to be granted planning permission, or so busy altering plans, their stories don’t get shared. If anyone else would like to blog or share their story (positive or negative) please comment below and I’ll gladly link to your experiences. This lack of feedback allows planning to brush terrible practises and poor quality of service under the carpet. In our case it cost our architects and us so much, in time and money, we simply don’t have the capacity to file an official complaint. It’s ludicrous that to officially complain you run the risk of incurring significant costs. But that is a minor point in a failing system.
Our planning journey started when our architect, Jeremy Bradley from CAD, submitted the first draft (featured here) of our plans as a pre-planning application. We concluded this was wise to get the plans in front of planning as early as possible. In theory this lets us find out if they’d have any objections in principle However, we made two mistakes:
Mistake 1: Not having a cheque book we submitted our pre-app and elected to pay by credit card. An option offered by planning. After 3 weeks of hearing nothing a bill arrived in the post. Poorly worded and claiming we owed £60. Planning wouldn’t process our application until we’d paid what we owed. A three week delay before we’ve even begun, and our first interaction is a poorly worded letter demanding money for a service not yet started. I’m considering adopting this practise too. I reckon I will go far doing nothing for three weeks then demanding money owed for not actually starting the work I’ve been asked to do…
Mistake 2: We bothered with pre-planning. After the three week delay we then suffered a further two week delay, and repeatedly had to chase for our pre-planning feedback. At one point Jeremy suggested ‘Could we just submit our full application?’. To be told ‘No, the pre-planning feedback is a valuable part of the process and we should wait’. After a further wait we received a document stating we’d paid for a desktop search. A desktop search that suggested no issues. Great!
Tip 1: Submit everything by email and follow up all interactions. Post adds a higher risk and further delays. When submitting anything call and chase it. Be proactive and ensure anything that needs paying is paid at the earliest opportunity. Planning are ‘busy’, and we speculated delaying sending out bills is a great stall tactic providing an additional buffer for their work flow. Chasing also gives confidence planning have you on their system, and your application’s dates will reflect this. Thus avoiding a three week delay like we suffered.
Tip 2: Be aware that planning officially have ten working days to respond to email, and two days to return an answerphone message. This doesn’t mean they do. It just means they should, and that they have ten days worth of email and two days worth of answerphone messages in a backlog. I imagine this isn’t relaxing or productive. It is no wonder they can sound stressed and claim to be too busy. Log everything and, as with Tip 1’s chase everything, use this log to backup when you sent things and when you are due an answer. Our experience shows if you don’t do this planning are quite prepared to ignore you, and forget you’d like to build a house this decade.
The Pre-planning (lack of) feedback meant Jeremy submitted our plans largely unchanged, and we crossed our fingers. Learning from pre-planning, the minute we received an email with a number we rang and used the application number to pay our fees (Tip 1). This meant our application was registered on the 30th May with a decision date of the 18th July.
As part of the planning process applications are sent to local Parish Councils. Each applicant is given two minutes to introduce their plans before the Parish Council discuss and vote to support, or not, the application. Both Jeremy (Architect) and Richard (Builder) offered to represent our case. But Sarah and I elected to attend and represent ourselves, with Sarah speaking. Sarah did a great job and gained unanimous approval and support on Tuesday 8th July.
About now you might be considering a five week delay isn’t much of a issue, and it all seems to be going well. Even the public feedback period yielded no complaints. We thought the same. Then our planning officer (here in referred to as the planner) started ‘thinking’… Walking through the village I’m stopped by a Parish Councillor who said he’s sorry to hear our application is being rejected, and that he, our ex-Parish Councillor neighbour, and other Parish Councillors have written an appeal to the rejection. All suggesting the reasons are ludicrous. When challenged by the Parish Councillors for our Architect’s feedback the planner said we hadn’t provided any. Could this be because this is the first we’d heard of a rejection, and she’d neglected to feed this relatively important point back to us…
Before rejecting plans planners provide the Parish Council with their reasons and see if the Parish will support the rejection. Thankfully the Parish said no, and Jinny Clark championed our case. Without Jinny, the support of our neighbours, and the parish our plans simply would have been rejected. We owe them all a lot of thanks, and a big party when the house is built!
Thought 1: The wall is historically significant
Despite the fact the Council’s heritage expert is on long term sick leave our planner, and her equally unqualified colleagues, thought the falling down wallm, picture above, was of historical significance. Therefore it needed to be saved. Even though it’s not historic, had nearly fallen down, and there is no mention of it in the World Heritage’s survey of historic walls in St.Agnes.
Out of respect for planning we didn’t pull the wall down straight away. Despite being well within our rights to. Instead Jeremy hired a World Heritage Consultant who researched the wall and documented the conclusion it wasn’t of significance. With the expert’s opinion and a digger onsite we needed to have a mining survey undertaken. This involved digging a trench under the wall. On examining the wall the mining expert suggested it needed to come down, now! Before it fell on someone. Several taps of the digger bucket later and the wall was no more. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a satisfying moment. In amongst the wall’s rubble we found several ‘historic’ breeze blocks and a captain crunch cereal packet from, the very historically significant, late 70’s.
I make light of the wall as it was falling down, dangerous and not historically significant. However, we’re very keen to preserve the history of the plot. Most of the stone we’ve dug up and reclaimed form the wall will be re-used.
Thought 2: The design needs some alterations
The pre-application’s terms and conditions state you may be assigned a different planner for your detailed application. They don’t tell you planning is subjective. So while the planner who processes your pre-planning application might be reasonable, capable of performing their role, and in agreement with your plans, there is no continuation. Sadly, it just as likely you’ll be assigned a different planner who could have any number of personal issue with your plans. They may even try to redesign your house into a one bed bungalow with no garage, hipped roof, and a stupidly huge stacked chimney………. Who wouldn’t want that after spending months with an architect designing a three bed eco family home, with double garage! Especially as this was first suggested in the last two weeks of July. Two weeks before our approval was due and we hoped to start building. Sixteen weeks into the process having only previously been told it’s all fine.
Thanks to Jeremy, Parish Councillor Jinny Clark and our next door neighbours we fought this. Eventually we managed to persuade our planner’s team leader to visit the site. After being on site and submitting our plans through a ‘quality circle’ it was decided our plans ‘didn’t work‘. Not because of a planning law, or article X,Y,Z… Nope the reasons was…
“We approved 84% of plans!” a defensive start…
“If a random passer-by walks into your neighbour’s garden, looks at your property and says ‘that’s too big’ then we have a problem…..”
I challenged this with “You’re seriously saying we can’t build our house because a random person could walk into our Neighbours’ enclosed garden and think our house is too big. Despite having a letter from the neighbours calling your feedback ludicrous and offering their full support”
“…… Yes……. and it’s my professional opinion too…”
Tip 3: Be prepared to fight. With Jinny, the Parish, neighbours, and Jeremy all in support we weren’t prepared to let our house go without a fight. Our planner’s team lead asked if we were willing to compromise, and I flatly said no. This is our one chance to build here and they’d given me no reason other than an opinion as to why we couldn’t. An opinion no one else agreed with. Looking back this was a pivotal point. Had we agreed to changes planning would have continued to push, or rejected our plans and we’d of had to go to appeal.
After the planners site visit on Wednesday 3rd September, things came to a head the following Friday. We received an email from Jeremy informing us planning were going to reject our application, and we would have to go to appeal. This is where we enter a whole new tier of costs, and our case goes in front of local councillors to be determined. Planning can say what they like during these meetings, and if there isn’t enough time we might not have been able to state our case. However, the email was also CC’d Jinny Clark. Jinny rang our local councillor and explained the situation. He then rang planning, and we received an email stating we’d been granted delegated approval. This is when a local councillor tells planning it’s approved, or rejected! We should expect this to be written up and with us Monday 8th September!!!!
Certificate B and the triangle
Monday comes and goes, you can imagine I’m frequently checking my email! Tuesday comes and goes… Still nothing! Wednesday lunch time I’ve had enough, and try to ring our planner to find out what’s going on.
Tip 4: Redial! If you need to speak to someone just keep dialling. The planner only ever once answered the phone on my first attempt to call. It usually took 2-3 presses of redial to get through, minimum. I’m aware this makes me an annoying customer but I was driven to it by their unprofessional nature:
- Not doing things they committed to.
- Not replying to emails and calls within their allotted time.
- Sending emails completely out of the blue containing major updates and issues without enough information to be able to understand what’s going on.
- Not following or adhering to their own processes.
- Not updating their calendars to reflect their movements. If you ring the Council’s very helpful call centre they can look up an individual’s calendar and let you know if they are on vacation, on a site visit, or in meetings etc. While this makes me akin to a stalker you try being patient after two days of being ignored when someone is ruining your house build.
If you need to speak to someone who’s trying to derail your house build with their opinion the least they could do is answer the phone, reply to emails, or correctly use their answerphone & calendar.
Paraphrasing, it went something along the lines of……
Me: “Hi XXXXX, it’s Olly. I’m just ringing about our delegated approval that was due on Monday?”
Planner: “Ah, well… In light of all the support we’ve changed our minds and decided to approve the application ourselves [remember that 84% approval statistic….]. However, a Mr.XXXXXXXX (my delightful uncle) has raised an ownership complaint on Monday and I’ve given him until Friday to present his case”
Me: “Errrrrrr… and you didn’t think this was worth mentioning to us on Monday…………….”
Over the summer planning informed Jeremy my uncle had raised a complaint. However, planning weren’t allowed to tell us what the complaint entailed. Our planner’s team lead suggested we could fix the problem by confirming ownership of the land to be built on. We did this, and thought no more of it. Unfortunately on the 10th of September with planning approved but not in writing, we discovered Nan hadn’t been served notice. An oversight on our part. While we own all of the land we intend to build on, we only have right of way over the drive. Because the access is considered part of the build, and the drive is owned by my Nan, we needed to serve her notice. Twenty one days of notice from re-submitting our Certificate B form, and serving Nan. Three more ‘joyful’ weeks of will it won’t it! This was a minor annoyance. The more unfortunate issue was my uncle winding Nan up during this notice period. Over a triangle of land we’d included as the border of our plans. Nan became convinced if our plans were approved this triangle would magically become ours. This was a significant problem for her. Why, she couldn’t articulate. No matter how we tried to re-assure her, she didn’t want to know.
This small triangle of land was included by following the natural border of the drive. We don’t have any rights over it, and it was a mistake on our plans. However, the triangle didn’t feature as part of our build or access requirements. Planning suggested it wasn’t an issue. Jeremy said it wasn’t an issue. My uncle said it was and issue. Jeremy kindly drew up a new site plan without the triangle (see the orange boxes and red border lines below). For this we owe planning a thanks, they allowed us to amend the border without resubmitting our plans, or further delay. Even at this late stage they could have rejected the application, and caused further delays and grief.
Finally on the 3rd October our approval arrived! Predictably after I had to ring our planner and chase it. Our potted timeline:
- 2nd April – Submitted Pre-app
- 20th May – Receive Pre-app feedback
- 30th May – Submitted full plans, date acknowledged by planning
- 8th July – Unanimous support from St.Agnes Parish Council
- 18th July – Decision due date
- 3rd September – Site visit with planner and her team lead
- 5th September – Email to say it’s being rejected
- 5th September – Email to say we’re getting delegated approval
- 8th September – Issue with the triangle and ownership
- 10th September – Serve Nan notice and submit our amended Certificate B form
- 3rd October – Finally granted planning
Only 11 weeks late……
Tip 5: Don’t plan on planning. All being well our application would have been approved on the 18th of July, and we’d of starting building on the 25th. Sadly that wasn’t to be. We were fortunate our Builder is very understanding!
Tip 6: If in doubt request another planner. We were too late to this party, and gambled it would be ok. Planning is subjective. Whether it should or shouldn’t be is another topic, it is! We’ve heard lots of horror stories relating to some planners, and good feedback on others. In theory if everyone did the research and pushed for a good planner it would free up the time of the others to improve, and force the planning team leaders to address the imbalances in the quality of service offered.
Tip 7 – The most important: Have a good team. Without Rich’s patience & advise, Jeremy and Sally from CADs hard work & efforts, the support of the Parish Council, and the lengths Jinny Clark went to we wouldn’t be building now.