It is not uncommon that garden makeovers or alterations need planning approval or listed-building consent before they go from paper to plot.
And, since 2020, enforcement officers have been inundated with complaints from a public who, having spent more time around their home territory, reported far more issues related to home and garden improvements.
Some improvements are being made without necessary consents: sheds morph into home offices; new tree houses roost in branches; privacy screens shoot up; outdoor entertaining areas, complete with sheltering structures, colonise back gardens.
As a planner pointed out to me, when investigating alleged breaches of planning control, tools such as Google Earth, with its satellite imagery, and Street View can be helpful in identifying the age, timeframe or extent of a development and therefore whether it has gained immunity from enforcement action.
But it is often not clear exactly what needs permission, and indeed according to one of my local planning enforcement officers, in many instances planning legislation is by no means black and white.
When householders are suspected of not having the right consents before building, feelings can get extremely heated, with vitriol often expressed on social media and local WhatsApp groups.
I have heard cases of newcomers objecting to neighbours’ planning applications and being lambasted by the village worthies for doing so, despite the fact that the proposals potentially affect the incomer’s property.
Local authority planning departments do not go looking for work, but it is their duty to investigate a complaint if one is reported. Most people are not familiar with planning law and it is not unusual for people to complain about actions that are perfectly legal.
You never know who might report you or why, so it is worth checking with your local planning department before you start work, especially if the scheme is expensive. I know of a scheme in which a tennis court was built, extending just beyond the garden curtilage but surrounded by trees. It was reported. How it was spotted is a mystery as it was in a very isolated spot. It received retrospective permission – which was lucky as the removal costs for tennis courts can, surprisingly, be higher than the build costs.
Mistakes can be made when people think that the whole of their curtilage is designated as garden, and so they have permitted development rights over the space allowing them to build certain features. But sometimes outlying areas, such as an old orchard or paddock, can be deemed agricultural land rather than garden, which is not automatically covered by development rights.
Permitted development rights allow owners to construct sheds, outdoor offices, paving and fences so long as they comply with set size limits and you do not live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a conservation area, a National Park, a World Heritage Site, or the Norfolk or Suffolk Broads.
One of my clients bought a field intending to extend their garden to have extra lawn, but they were ordered to stop the regular mowing of it as this meant it was no longer in agricultural use.
In another case the owners were refused permission to create a garden on their adjoining paddock so they built a vegetable garden and greenhouse on it, which was deemed to be acceptable as this qualified as horticultural production.
For listed buildings you may well have to apply for listed-building consent for many elements within the curtilage of the property. I have had to apply to remove a 1960s prefab greenhouse (a bit of a monstrosity) as it was attached to a listed garden wall.
Ornamental pools, low walls, large areas of paving and even raised beds may well need listed permission. I have encountered instances where planners have had animated discussions among themselves as to what permissions are needed, so it is no wonder that Joe Public’s perceptions can be hazy.
If you have developed something without permission, you can be made to remove it unless you have had 10 years of unbroken use.
The planning permissions you need
Boundary heights for gardens are fairly clear in planning law. You can make a boundary fence 2m high unless it is adjacent to a highway; then 1m is your limit.
I have been to planning appeal on this one, where for a client with a house in Fotheringhay, a beautiful, local stone village, we wanted to extend the height of the boundary wall adjacent to the road to 1.8m to afford more privacy to the garden. As there were other instances of walls in the village of 1.8m high or higher, we won the case just by putting our reasons in writing.
In many appeal cases such as these, both sides produce a written statement and then a judgment is made – although about 70 per cent of the cases are settled on the side of the planning authority.
With the restrictions on boundary-fence heights you can well understand the huge popularity of pleached trees to hide neighbouring eyesores.
These trees, grown with a straight clear trunk and a canopy that begins some distance above ground so that it does not spread across precious garden space, can be trained so that their leafy part starts and finishes exactly at the required points.
The canopy could start any distance off the ground and likewise the top can go to any height, within reason. You do not need planning permission for them usually, but they can offend your neighbours, who may resent the shade or the blocking of their view over your garden, so use with caution if you want to stay friends.
Tennis courts need planning permission for several reasons, according to consultant Mark Jarman, who specialises in planning work related to tennis courts and swimming pools.
This is partly because the perimeter fencing (usually 2.75m), is above the 2m limit and more often than not may be within 2m of the property boundary. Also, being some 600 sq m in area, they often cannot be accommodated within the domestic curtilage and so will need a change of land use.
If a court is to be within the curtilage of a listed building then it may, but not necessarily, need listed-building consent too, but only if there is an impact on the listed structure.
Tennis courts within the curtilage of a listed building do require planning permission, but they don’t necessarily require listed-building consent: only if there is an impact on a listed structure. And if the fence is adjacent to a neighbour’s boundary and the neighbour’s house is listed, then permission is needed.
If significant earth-moving is required (which usually is) then that is another reason for the need for permission. The earth-moving element is extremely subjective, in my experience. What some planning authorities deem as minor engineering works, others don’t bat an eyelid at. Another may say you can move the amount of earth one man can move in an afternoon with a spade, without permission.
Increasingly I am designing tennis courts with just four corner posts and netting that you can just draw back to the corner posts. If you then have grass as your surface (and with robotic mowers, maintenance is a breeze), planning becomes far less of an issue. The visual impact of such a project on the garden is negligible – far less than forbidding stretches of chain link fencing.
Outdoor swimming pools are less of a problem in planning terms than tennis courts. You might not need permission, but always check. I know of a few refusals for those adjacent to listed buildings, though. It is the associated pool building that can be a sticking point: one owner I heard of surreptitiously increased the build size without reapplying for permission and had to pull the building down.
Garden sheds, wildlife pools and treehouses
Garden sheds and home offices are usually within permitted development rights as long as they are not bigger than 15 sq m, not used for sleeping in, and do not take up more than 50 per cent of the garden.
Wildlife pools can be construed as engineering works – again, it is all about scale and the amount of earth being moved. As ever, do check with your local planning officer first.
It can be tricky to determine whether tree houses need planning permission or not. If you are planning to build a large structure for your children, then it is pretty straightforward that you do.
Otherwise, if you keep them more than 2m from the boundary and generally restrict the height to 4m it might not be necessary. In many cases though I usually get clarification from the planners before we finalise the design.
If you are intending to pave your front garden and the area is larger than 5 sq m, the paving is to be of an impermeable material such as stone, and the subsequent rain run-off will not be absorbed in the garden, you will need planning permission.
Usually it is easy to direct the rainwater run-off into adjacent beds or grass areas, so very often permission is not required. Generally this is the case in the majority of existing front gardens.
Many people have complained that getting any information from their planning officers has been extremely difficult during the pandemic.
On one job I carried out, we wanted the tree officer to come and examine some trees that we wanted to remove. She replied she could not. We tried to press her to come, but it transpired she was not in the office but working from her home in France – c’est la vie!
Tip for before you start construction
Always check with the local planning office if you are unsure whether you need planning or listed-building permission – it can be a grey area. In my experience planning officers are very helpful.
Check that the whole garden is within your domestic curtilage. If some is not, then you will not automatically have permitted development rights on the parts that are not in this category.
It is helpful to discuss proposals with your neighbours if there is any chance that they will be affected; if they object, you might be able to pacify them by altering the design in the early stages.
If you need planning permission for a tennis court or swimming pool, using a specialist consultant such as Mike Jarman at planningfortennis.co.uk can save lots of time and frustration.
Employ a landscape architect to ensure that the development fits into the landscape (landscapeinstitute.org). It is the job of the architect or landscape architect to advise on whether planning consents are necessary. Usually they make any applications. Clients could do this, but rarely do, in my experience. Some clients say they don’t want to apply even though they should. If a professional has advised they should apply and they don’t, then the client would be liable. Otherwise, it would be the professional.
This article is kept updated with the latest advice.