Planning tactics making the most out of your plot

Whether you’re self building, extending or converting an existing dwelling, a key planning question is how can we get a bit more living space? Making the most out of your plot can enhance the quality of accommodation you create and increase its value. However, information on making planning applications, especially that provided by councils, tends to focus on planning policy and on the mechanics of making a planning application. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what’s also needed is a clever tactical approach that will help you to optimise your plot.

Basic principles

When attempting to maximise size, a common conundrum is whether it’s better to start off with something a bit bigger than you want and then be seen to compromise with the planners, or start small and work your way up to something bigger.

Some builders and developers subscribe to the ‘start big’ approach. This initially involves going to the planners with a design that’s significantly larger than you really want. You then fight tooth and nail as the planners try to get you to reduce it to something more realistic. Eventually you reluctantly concede reductions until you arrive at what you actually wanted in the first place. The planners, you hope, are relieved that they’ve successfully beaten you down and are happy the end scheme is much better than the one you started off with. Your apparent willingness to concede to the planners’ wishes can play well with councillors, too, if your application is decided by committee.

The second approach is favoured by planning professionals and involves starting off with something that is likely to be acceptable to the local authority. Having got their agreement, you then set about making and agreeing minor extensions and alterations until you arrive at what you want. This could mean agreeing a sketch scheme initially – perhaps via the pre application process – then presenting more attractive, finished drawings that show something just a little bigger. If the planner is happy, you might tweak the designs a touch more before formally submitting them.

Once permission is granted,you can then seek further changes as ‘minor amendments to the permitted scheme’. Each new alteration or application is made from a position of strength because all that’s being considered is the small difference between what’s already permitted and the final design.

Reducing bulk

When you’re trying to get as big a house or extension as possible, often the real planning issue is more to do with the overall bulk of the building than the actual amount of space within it. It’s possible to reduce bulk by a number of means. Sinking the slab (or floor level) of the building deeper into the plot is a simple way of lowering the whole structure, although too much excavation can add to build costs and potentially create drainage problems.

Reducing the pitch of the roof brings down the ridge height, as does lowering the eaves. Hipping a roof can also remove a lot of volume compared to gables. A combination of these methods can bring about a significant reduction in size without actually losing any internal accommodation at all.

Breaking a long ridgeline, or perhaps stepping a house back into the plot can do much to reduce the impression of size, too. Pushing a house back from the road and planting in front of it can help reduce its impact on the street scene.


A basement is not the cheapest form of construction, but it can be a really useful way of adding more room.

In green belt, where the size of extensions and replacement dwellings is strictly controlled, some councils don’t count basements in their space calculations. Others allow basements as long as they don’t provide so-called primary accommodation, such as living rooms and bedrooms. Plant and utility rooms are usually OK, while gyms, cinema rooms and even swimming pools have also been cheerfully accepted underground.

Permitted development and fall-back

Even if your scheme exceeds permitted development tolerances and you have to apply for permission, don’t lose sight of your rights, The fact that you could build a 4m deep extension on your house without planning permission is highly relevant in consideration of a 4,5m or 5m extension. This is known as a ‘fall back’ position in planning jargon and it’s always worth pointing out to planning officers that you’re aware of it.

In the countryside and particularly green belt, policies might restrict extensions to less than the size normally allowed by permitted development. In this situation your permitted development rights can be a vital bargaining chip in negotiating a larger extension than policy usually allows. The same applies to rural and in particular green belt replacements. Policies generally restrict replacement buildings to a percentage increase over the size of the existing dwelling. But that property could enjoy permitted development rights which, if taken up, would take it well over the prescribed policy limit. To make full use of this fall back potential it is usually necessary to get a sketch scheme drawn up to present to the planners. This will help to convince them that you really would build the larger extension if they don’t allow a replacement of comparable size.

Pre-application advice

Most projects start with getting advice from the council before you submit a planning application. One question many self builders ask is: do you have to follow the advice you’re given or can you safely ignore at least some of it? There’s an important distinction to be made here. At the pre-application stage planners will tell you what they’d like you to build. This can be different to what they feel obliged to accept when you make a formal application. So, if you get pre-submission advice on your scheme, make sure you demonstrate that you’re following most of it and always provide compelling arguments for any bits you choose to ignore.

Don’t forget local politics

It’s easy to get so tied up with the details of your project that you forget local politics. Avoiding objections from neighbours and parish council puts you in a good position to elicit support from your district or borough councillor.


With any application it pays to feel your way forward carefully, fostering good relations with planners, neighbours and local councillors. But being sensitive to feedback from these people doesn’t necessarily mean compromising your scheme. Good tactics, creative design and a little flexibility can ensure you maximise your project and make the very most of your self build opportunity.