What is prior approval?

Permitted development rights allow certain changes (or “developments”) that would otherwise have required planning permission to be made in the absence of planning permission. 

Broadly speaking, this means that you can undertake permitted developments without any need to submit a formal planning application to the local council (although we still recommend that you apply for a Lawful Development Certificate – find out why here). 

However, there is a notable exception to this. Certain permitted development rights are “subject to prior approval”. This includes larger home extensions and changes of use from agricultural buildings to dwellinghouses as well as many other rights. 

If a permitted development right is subject to prior approval, this means the developer must submit an application for their local council’s written approval prior to commencing works. If the council’s prior approval is denied, you cannot proceed with the development.

How do I know if a permitted development right is subject to prior approval?

If a permitted development right is subject to prior approval, it will be clearly stated in the relevant section of The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 [as amended]. 

What matters are considered as part of a prior approval application?

The matters to be considered by the council as part of the prior approval process differ depending on the permitted development right in question. 

The relevant section of The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 [as amended] will tell you what information needs to be supplied to the council as part of a prior approval application and what matters the council must consider.

For example, the permitted development right to change the use of an agricultural building to one or more dwellinghouses is subject to prior approval. The relevant section of the legislation states that the developer must apply for prior approval concerning the below matters:

  1. (a) Transport and highways impacts;
  2. (b) Noise impacts;
  3. (c) Contamination risks;
  4. (d) Flooding risks;
  5. (e) Whether the location or siting of the building makes the change of use impractical or undesirable;
  6. Design or external appearance of the building; and
  7. (g) Provision of adequate natural light in all habitable rooms. 

When they receive an application for prior approval, the council may only consider matters that are explicitly stated in the legislation to require their prior approval. 

The developer must submit sufficient documents and information to enable the council to properly assess each matter. In the absence of such information, it is likely that the council will refuse to grant prior approval. 

What are the possible outcomes of an application for prior approval?

An application for prior approval first asks, “is prior approval required?” If the council considers that it is, the application then asks, “is prior approval granted?”

In some cases, the council may determine that its prior approval is not required at all. For example, larger home extensions are subject to a prior approval neighbour consultation scheme. When you submit your application for prior approval, your local council will consult immediate neighbours. If they receive no objections, they will determine that their prior approval is not required. 

However, if they do receive objections, their prior approval is required meaning they must proceed to fully assess the impact of the larger home extension on all neighbours. If this impact is found to be acceptable, prior approval will be granted. If it is found to be unacceptable, prior approval will be refused.

Importantly, there is also a strict 56-day deadline within which a local council must issue a decision on a valid application for prior approval. If this deadline expires without a decision being made, you may undertake your permitted development as though approval had been granted. 

This means that an application for prior approval has the following possible outcomes:

OutcomeWhat does it actually mean?
“Prior approval not required”You may proceed to undertake the permitted development
“Prior approval given/granted”You may proceed to undertake the permitted development
“Prior approval denied/refused”You may NOT proceed to undertake the permitted development
No decision issued within 56 days of a valid applicationYou may proceed to undertake the permitted development

How does a prior approval application differ to a normal planning application?

When a council receives a prior approval application, they can only consider matters that are explicitly stated in the relevant section of the permitted development legislation to require their prior approval.

With a normal planning application, the council is entitled to consider a very wide range of planning matters and impacts. 

As the planning matters are substantially narrowed down, there is generally a much better chance of an application for prior approval being successful than there is of a full planning application being approved.

For example, the permitted change of use of an agricultural building to one or more dwellinghouses is subject to prior approval concerning a number of matters. These matters do not include the standard of accommodation (although adequate natural light to all habitable rooms is required). This means that the council is not allowed to deny prior approval, for example, on the basis of a substandard size or layout of the residential units or their gardens. 

If you were to submit a normal planning application for the same change of use, the council would be entitled to consider these matters in full. If the new accommodation was considered to be of a substandard size or layout, planning permission would almost certainly be refused. 

The fees associated with prior approval applications also tend to be much smaller. 

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