Plan stage

Designing your project and getting planning permission is one of the most exciting stages, as you get your vision on paper.

The Plan stage is all about working with a range of professionals to design your scheme and - for new build and extensions - obtaining planning permission.

Some projects won't need planning permission, of course. For example, if you are just buying and renovating empty or poor quality homes, the "plan" stage will be much more simple.

You will already have done some of this work at the Group and Site stages (and of course projects don't always move neatly from one stage to the next).

  • When working your group and developing your vision and objectives you will have begun to sketch out what you'd like to build (or renovate). You might have identified ambitions like energy efficiency, room sizes (known as 'space standards') and the layout of homes. It's helpful to work out what your priorities are, because it's rarely possible to pay for everything you want.
  • Site investigations described under the Site stage often involve a sketch plan to work out whether the project is viable and whether the site is suitable. This work will also uncover constraints, whether natural (such as sloping sites) or relating to local planning policy (such as density and car/bike parking policies).

So what else should you consider at the Plan stage?

Local planning policy and process

Many community led housing projects get planning permission without too much trouble, because they are proposing high quality, sustainable development that is locally supported.

It's important that you work with qualified professionals, particularly architects and quantity surveyors, to design your scheme. Put out an Invitation To Tender and interview a few different firms to find one that understands your vision and fits with your values.

You should also inform yourselves about the planning policy environment, which your local enabling hub can help you with. There are:

  • The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which sets the context for the whole country. You can read it here.
  • Your Local Plan, which is devised by your local council and must 'have regard' to the NPPF. You should read the Core Strategy and any supplementary planning documents that look relevant, particularly housing. There are both general policies for the local authority area, more local policies that might be specific to the area your site is in, and even site-specific policies that might affect you.
  • Neighbourhood Plans may also be in effect, created by local communities through Neighbourhood Forums. These again must 'have regard' to the Local Plan and the NPPF.

Your architect and other professionals can help you design a scheme that complies with all of the relevant policy requirements. As you might imagine, this can become quite costly unless you get pro bono support.

Engage early and often

Before you go too far down the road, you should have a conversation with your Local Planning Authority (part of your council). They will tell you if your plans face any major barriers, and help you understand some of the constraints you will need to bear in mind.

Talking to the development managers in your Local Planning Authority as you move forward will ensure you can head off any issues before you waste a lot of time and money. Bear in mind that many planning departments are seriously under-resourced, so they may not always be as helpful as they would like to be.

You should also start your local community engagement early, and do this thoroughly. You might think "we are a community organisation" so you don't need to worry about it. But consider this:

  • many community led housing projects aren't started and run by people in the local area around the site in question, so people directly impacted by the development may object if they've not had a chance to understand your plans and feed in;
  • building a large and diverse membership, and not just relying on your steering group or committee members, will help you to take stock of a wide range of views so you can pick up on any potential problems and head them off;
  • local councillors may make the final decision, if it isn't delegated to officers, and while they must have regard to planning policy they will be influenced by the strength of local feeling, so it is much better to ensure there are no local campaigns against your project.