In this narrative I have used first names only for all the people concerned. When I get permission I will publish their full names and contact details on the “Team” page.
We brought Longmoor Lodge in the Spring of 2000. We knew the property needed substantial renovation, and immediately did some remedial work to ensure it was secure and watertight. We decided that the order we would attack the work would be to redecorate the dining room (reasons below), re-roof a couple of areas and then work on some of the more pressing areas on the externals such as guttering and rendering.
The house had a mixture of recent(ish) uPVC windows, some Crittal steel ones and some poor quality, poorly painted pine ones. We set about replacing all of the non-plastic ones which, with an updated alarm allowed us to get appropriate contents insurance. The dining room was frankly, embarrassing. It was in poor condition with an orange shag-pile bedroom carpet and some very strange decorations. This room wasn’t (we thought) a structural problem, but for the sanity of my wife, we had to get this room in a less embarrassing state. We took on an interior designer whose scheme was very appealing and appropriate to the style of the house. When work got going however we found one pleasant surprise and a number of very unpleasant ones. Under the orange shag-pile we found a oak parquet floor which is fantastic. However the bad news was we ended up needing a new ceiling, plaster, plumbing, electrics and woodwork. And if this was indicative of the condition of the other rooms in the house, we had a much bigger problem that we originally thought.
I went on summer holiday and pondered on what we should do. It now looked like a complete gutting of the interior as well as the exterior repairs. I thought that if we were going to go through such a large scale renovation we may as well do something about a couple of the illogical and poor quality extensions that had been added to the house over the years. I sketched out a design that took out part of the north-eastern side of the house and created another “wing” that formed a central courtyard. I got very excited about this and came back and put the design on CAD.
The interior designer we used for the dining room had put us in-touch with Ian who is a small builder. Ian is in partnership with Alan, an architect so we had them come around to look at our scheme. In no time, they identified the impracticalities of my design, and the fact that I was looking at adding more building without attacking one of the major weaknesses in the current house, and that was an area of flat roof that was leaky and totally illogical compared to the rest of the building.
Alan went away and came up with a new scheme that worked from a building perspective and was more harmonious with the design of the existing house. Instead of the courtyard arrangement the plan added another wing of similar scale to the northern end of the house and in the position that the attached garage currently is. So in October 2000 we submitted our first planning application. Ian pulled together the application detail and used a chartered town planner to add some planning input. I dropped a letter to my local ward councillor, but as she turned out to be head of the Planning Development Committee, politely declined to engage in discussions about my specific application. The application went through its normal course of events with a site visit from the Planning Officer, and after a few weeks I called the Planning Department to be told that they would be recommending a refusal of our application. I was very crestfallen, having built up an expectation that this would sail through the process as the site is invisible from the road and is not overlooked.
The Planning Officer said that they apply the “160% rule” in the Department, basically that means that any increase in floor area of the property must be less than 60% of the size of the original house’s floor area, and as the original house was a small 2 up 2 down, the exiting extensions made it way in excess of 160% already. I argued that the house now stands in 11 acres of land and that the scale of the original property was way out of kilter with its surroundings. The Planning Department predictably, would hear nothing of it.
That weekend we were at dinner at a friend’s who is a local builder, I explained my predicament and he suggested I engage the services of a local company of planning consultants. Their consultant turned up, mooched around the house, looked at the planning application and said that he was not surprised that it was refused. Apparently they refuse most applications in this area, particularly large extensions like this one.
I thought about this, and taking into account the projected cost of the extension and the redecorating cost of the existing interior, I suggested half-jokingly that we may be better knocking the whole thing down and rebuilding it from scratch. The planning consultant suggested that this may not be as far-fetched as we may think. There is a Planning Guideline issued by the Government (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) which has the potential to supersede local planning guidelines it is called PPG7 (now PPS7) the gist of it is as follows:
An isolated new house in the countryside may also exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings. Proposals for such development would need to demonstrate that proper account had been taken of the defining characteristics of the local area, including local or regional building traditions and materials. This means that each generation would have the opportunity to add to the tradition of the Country House which has done so much to enhance the English countryside.
He was fresh from supporting a successful planning application based on PPG7 on a property about 3 miles from Longmoor Lodge. He said that while the other property was in some 25 acres (including a 12 acre lake), it was bounded by residential developments and roads. So while our land is smaller it is in a more rural location and therefore is as likely to be interpreted as “an isolated new house in the countryside”.
After a bit of digging at the Planning Office and looking over the application for the other property, we got some sense as to the scale and style of what we thought would be an acceptable PPG7 application. Alan the architect spent some time talking to us about the kind of house we wanted and the style we like. Usually a design for a new house has to be either radically modern, or in the “local vernacular”. The particular part of Berkshire we live does not really have a local vernacular any more, so we looked for some clues slightly further a field for inspiration. I am a fan of the architect Edwin Lutyens, and am particularly fond of Deanery Gardens in Sonning-on-Thames, about 6 miles from us. The house there is built within an ancient walled garden (hence the name) where Gertrude Jeckyell (Lutyens’ long-time garden designer collaborator) had created a formal terraced design. This wasn’t appropriate for the design at Longmoor lodge so we looked at the house Leutens designed for Jeckyell herself at Munstead Wood in Surrey. This is in heavily wooded country like Longmoor Lodge.
So the design was inspired by Munstead Wood, with some design cues from Deanery Gardens such as sprocketed eaves and full height square gallery windows. Added to this however was the scale to ensure it could be interpreted as a “country house” and extremely high quality of design and detailing. The design was for 6 bedrooms in the house with an attached indoor pool, sauna and gym plus an attached garage complex. It was big, imposing and somewhat sprawling but nonetheless very attractive. Our planning consultant wrote the application, including reference to the other nearby PPG7 that had been successful. This was in summer 2001.
The usual process took place again with a couple of site visits from the Planning Department, we received notification from the Parish Council that there was no objection to our application (good to have but not relevant). While enthusiastic about the scheme, the knock-back we got on the first application had dented my confidence, so I wasn’t completely surprised when we received our refusal notice. While the planning department did acknowledge that the design was of high quality and architectural merit, it was rejected based on “built mass” and the 160% rule! I was pretty frustrated by this time and asked for a meeting with the Planning Department. They explained that they could interpret the guidelines any way they wanted, and that the other PPG7 application was a “special case” (very “special” in my view, although I couldn’t possibly document my views on that here), and either way I have the right to appeal. Having taken us down this route, the planning consultant disappeared from the scene (I don’t blame him!) after leaving me with a fat invoice for his fees.
I knew I needed qualified legal help so with a bit of research I tracked down Nick, a solicitor based in Reading who had good planning experience. I explained our situation to date and my intention to appeal, Nick looked at the history to date and said that while he felt we had good grounds for appeal, PPG7 applications and appeals were rare and complex and we should enlist the services of a Barrister with expertise in this area. He put me in contact with Peter, a planning barrister who came for a meeting and a site visit.
Peter looked through are applications and walked around the site. He concluded that while the design of the proposed house was of the scale and architectural merit for PPG7, the location worked against it. Very few PPG7 applications had been approved and with the exception of the anomalous one 3 miles from me, all of the others are truly in open country and can be seen for miles. This, in his interpretation is what PPG7 means when it says “the tradition of the Country House which has done so much to enhance the English countryside”. (This is subsequently backed up by the draft PPS7 wording that says “open countryside” instead of just “countryside”)
However, he did believe that we should be able to build a new house on the land, but not through PPG7. His expensive but very valuable advice was to scale down the application, re-submit using standard arguments and go for an appeal after the application was rejected. His justification is that for the appeal a Planning Inspector is always assigned from outside the area and will make judgement based on the merits of the individual application and arguments presented without influence of local politics. He also put me in touch with Gerry and Murray, planning consultants based in Hampshire.
By this time I was punch-drunk. I had spent a small fortune or architects, consultants, lawyers and barristers, and I was no nearer building this house. I was very close to the point of giving up, sprucing the house up a bit and selling to find another place in an area with a more sympathetic Planning policy. I had caught the bug by then and definitely wanted to do a self-build, but doing it at Longmoor Lodge seemed like a long shot at that moment.
I met with Gerry who looked at the history and agreed with Peter, we should be able to build a house here. We should go for a new application and if refused, go for an appeal. I talked to Alan and Ian – I did not have the stomach (or budget) to go through a whole new design process again, and I really liked the design of the PPG7 house. So I said to go with the house as-is, but loose the swimming pool, gym and link between the garage block and the house. This dramatically reduced the build mass and scale, but meant only very minor adjustments to the design. I also asked that we keep the relative positioning of the house and garage, so if by some miracle (and winning the Lottery) I had the budget and got the permission in future, we could build the pool and gym.
The drawings were turned around very quickly, but Gerry and Murray spent a long time creating a thoroughly researched, well argued report complete with lots of examples that built a compelling argument for our application. Compelling at least for normal human beings – not necessarily the average Planning Officer. On Gerry's advice, we talked to the people whose land adjoins ours to make sure they wouldn’t raise any objections. I spent a lot of time reading the examples and becoming thoroughly conversant with the thrust of our submission.
We made the application in October 2002, and following a site visit from a new Planning Officer (who muttered something to Jo on the site visit about “Bats in the Belfry” …. What Belfry??), we got the predicted Refusal Notice. We did however get the approval of the Parish Council and The Environment Agency. Gerry and Murray set about creating the Appeal submission, which took the reasons for refusal the Planning Department had made and addressed each point. We submitted the appeal and got a date in early April. We went for the Informal Hearing route. Gerry said that a face to face with the Inspector is usually more effective that written because you can answer ad-hoc questions there and then and it puts a “human face” on the Appeal.
It seemed like ages for the Appeal date to come around. During that time I had a number of meetings with Gerry and Murray to make sure we were aligned and knew what role each should play in the meeting. From that, here is my unofficial do’s and don’ts for the Appeal day.
* Wear formal clothes, even if it’s an informal hearing. The Inspector will be dressed formally; the Planning Department will often be in “business casual” - whatever that is.
* Don’t go mob-handed. In our case we decided that just Gerry and I should go. The Planning Department may turn up with a team of 5 people, or maybe just one – be ready for either.
* Neighbours and other people with an interest may turn up for the Appeal, be ready for that, especially if any of the neighbours have objected.
* Have your paperwork in a binder, with index tabs to coincide with each point that you have made in the submission.
* Make sure each member of your team has a complete set of paperwork. Take a spare copy of the drawings and submission. The Inspector may not have everything on the day. If you have sent drawings with hilighter on, make sure you have the originals – highlighter comes out uniformly muddy grey on photocopies, and that is all that the Inspector may have.
* Agree in advance who will answer questions. In our case we decided that Gerry would answer all questions unless the Inspector addresses me directly. If there was something Gerry couldn’t answer, he would refer it to me.
* Behave as though it is a court (it is in a way). The Inspector should be addressed as “Sir” or “Madam”, and everyone else by their titles i.e. “Mr Taylor” – no first names names.
* The Inspector will have read the submission and possibly had an informal look at the site on the preceding day. There is no need to educate the Inspector on the history unless they specifically ask you to.
* The Inspector will formally open and close the Hearing. They will usually close it at the end of the site visit. Be aware that even on site, if the Inspector has not formally closed the hearing, they are in charge.
* The Inspector judges the application on its individual merit. They will not always ask for the supporting precedents or examples. It is not good to lead with those. They should only be introduced if the Inspector requests it.
* On the site visit, stay close to the Inspector as they walk around, they are likely to have more questions.
* The Inspector will take up to 60 days to come up with their judgement. There is no point in pushing for their opinion on the day, or trying to read anything into their comments (unless they say something blindingly obvious like “I am going to allow this appeal”!)
Our Appeal took place in a windowless, bunker-like room under the council offices. The Inspector was from Bristol area. He had read through our submission and driven past the site the previous day. He didn’t have a complete set of drawings, so our spare set came in handy. The Planning Officer from the council arrived a few minutes late. She was their only representative.
After examining the various drawings and establishing the boundaries (which were confused between the Council’s set of drawings and ours) the Inspector invited Gerry to walk through the points of the Appeal and asked various questions along the way. While the session was quite formal, the Inspector was friendly and helpful. The Planning Officer got a little lost in her response to one question regarding local Planning Policy, which the Inspector helped her out with. A key part of this discussion centred on the Restrictions that the Planning Department proposed if the Appeal was carried. Apart from the standard ones around working hours, site access etc they had asked for, among other things, a removal of all our Permitted Development rights, specific restrictions on the use of the space in the roof of the garage and prohibition of any dormer windows in the main house roof in the future. The Inspector asked specific questions of the Planning Officer on each of these and made lengthy notes of the answers.
After about 2 hours of submission, the Appeal was adjourned for 20 minutes and reconvened on-site. The Inspector, Planning Officer Gerry and I walked around the site for about 30 minutes, including going onto the road and walking to the neighbouring houses to get a sense of what can be seen of our site from there. During the walk around the existing house, the Inspector asked me why I wanted to knock the house down and rebuild. I explained the problems I have had with quality of the exiting buildings and the illogical design. The Inspector did not agree or disagree with anything I said, he just made notes. Fortunately it was a pleasant warm spring day, so the site visit was easy and quite relaxed. At the end Inspector formally adjourned the Appeal and said that he would provide a decision within the statutory time period. He left in his car, the Planning Inspector in hers leaving Gerry and I to contemplate our performance. Gerry is a pro and was non-committal, he said that he felt it went well, but as to whether that meant the Appeal would be successful he didn’t know. He said he had done Appeals where the Inspector seemed bias to the Planning Department and yet the decision had gone the Appellant’s way, and he had also seen the reverse. He had not worked with this particular Inspector before so couldn’t call it.
4 weeks went by, it was a strange period because I had nothing to go on to determine progress. I kept rerunning the Appeal in my mind to try and pick up on any hints or clues. I re-read the notes I made several times, but still could find nothing to latch on to. As time dragged on, I prepared for the worse. I assumed we would fail in the Appeal and would be looking to move. I drew up a list of the remedial work we had to do in order to sell the Longmoor Lodge and started thinking about areas we should consider moving to. Then one day at work I got a call from Jo. Gerry had called home to say that the Appeal had been carried! I couldn’t believe my ears; I spent the rest of the day in a trance, went home early and cracked a bottle of champagne. The next day I got the official notice in the post with the Inspector’s report. He rejected the Planning Departments assertions on the built mass and scale of the house and accepted our position that the house is in proportion to than land it sits in, would be no more visible to neighbours than the existing house and is of outstanding design and quality. Vitally he rejected all of the Planning Departments proposed conditions except for the standard ones around working time, site access etc.
This was a fantastic result, and when the new house is finally built I am sure will prove worthwhile. I still feel very bitter however that because of the unimaginative, disinterested “jobs-worth” attitude the seems to pervade the Planning Department here, I have poured 3 years of our lives and over £30,000 into this project without digging a single hole.