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Updated: Feb 25

The UK planning system is separate from the building regulations

So, you got planning permission for your extension, or your new house, well done. Are you all set to start construction? No, and you are not done with the local authority by a long shot.

Most countries require legal permission be granted before a new structure can be built. These legal permissions, or Statutory Approvals, can be confusing but in the UK there are two which matter the most; Planning Permission and Building Regulations.

Most people have heard of planning permission, the media love a good story about people who are forced to demolish houses built without planning approval or how the planning system is supposedly holding up construction of new homes. But if you ask a regular homeowner, the kind of person who typically employs me, about the building regulations, they can be a bit vague. So here is a simple way to understand these two, separate statutory approvals.

Planning Permission and Building Regulations are like car tax and car insurance. They are separate and different and you need both, if you only have one, you aren’t covered.

I spend a lot of my professional life explaining the system to people because most of my clients have never hired an Architect or built anything before. Now, it's one thing to explain to a persons who is completely unaware of something but its far harder to get someone to give up their pre-existing opinions. This is how it usually is with the planning system.

The media in the UK have built the planners up to be an all-powerful bureaucracy, when in reality, the planners are only interested in specific aspects of any proposed building work. The building regulations cover other aspects of buildings, which the planners are not interested in, and vice versa. The two systems are administered by different people, with different training and they deal with different things. It is usually the mark of an amateur, someone having their first go at construction or property development, to become confused between the planning system and the building regulations.

So, let me explain it to you.

The planners are interested in the impact the proposed building will have on the wider community. Will the proposed building overload the gas, water, electric and sewage systems. Will it lead to more cars on the local roads or more children in the local schools. Once the big, strategic issues have been addressed, the planners move on to aesthetic considerations. What material will it be built from. Does it overshadow, or overlook its neighbours. Should the proposed building fit in, or is it OK for it to be different from its neighbours. The planners aren’t interested in structural questions or whether the building has enough insulation, those are building regulation issues.

The building standards officers want to know if the building has the correct number of bathrooms and stairs, do the rooms have sufficient natural light and ventilation. Will the structure stand up. How is rainwater drained from the roof? Are the doors wide enough and how is the risk of fire managed so the occupants and neighbours are kept safe. They do not care what your buildings looks like. Aesthetics are not their thing.

You could say the planners look at the building from the outside in and the building standards officers look at the building from the inside out.

From my point of view, it takes a lot more time to prepare a competent building warrant application than a planning application for the same building. Take at look at this recent project for example.

modern house extension outside Edinburgh
I designed this house extension outside Edinburgh, built in 2020

This is the full set of planning application drawings.

The planning drawings for the house extension above

These show the existing building, the areas being demolished are shown as a thin, dashed red line and the new elements are highlighted in yellow.

Floor plan of a house extension UK
Floor plan showing the new house extension in yellow. The existing structure to be demolished is in red

Elevation drawing of a house extension UK
Side elevation drawing of the house extension, with notes

The materials for the new structure are described in simple terms, nothing technical.

Building regulation drawings for a house extension in the UK
The Architects Building Regulations drawing for the house extension. The structural engineers drawings are not included

This is the full set of building regulation drawings for the same project. The first thing to notice is the number of drawings is far greater than for the planning application. We also had to employ a structural engineer and an energy consultant to prepare drawings and reports in support of the building regulations application. The engineers drawings are not in the screen shot above.

The building regulations package includes detailed construction drawings and written specifications, like this.

building regulation drawings UK
Construction drawing of the roof and wall of the house extension above, including details of the window seat.

The building warrant process is based on detailed and comprehensive building regulations. If the design complies with the regulations the building warrant application will be approved.

Planning, on the other hand, is not certain. There is a degree of interpretation involved and planning officers have discretion to use their own judgment. Not to mention the fact that larger applications will be reviewed by elected local officials, who sometimes vote against the recommendations of the planning officers.

If anyone tells you they can guarantee a design will get planning approval they are either lying or they don't understand how the process works.

The ultimate nightmare situation is that a proposed design gets approved by the planners only to discover that significant changes need to be made for it comply with the building regulations. This happens more often than you might realise. A competent designer will ensure the design meets the requirements of the building regulations BEFRE a planning application is made. Otherwise the changes required to comply with the building regulations will alter the proposal to such an extent that its original planning approval is no longer valid, and a new planning application is required.

The building regulations are not wallpaper, something you just can stick on at the end. Maybe the building needs another stairs, or more bathrooms or the layout must be changed in some fundamental way.

Because the two systems don’t overlap it is entirely possible to get planning permission approved for a design that stands no chance of getting building regulations approval.

Ive had clients tell me they don't care about the building regulations. All they want is to get planning approval and worry about regulations later. This can have catastrophic financial consequences and, once I explain this to them, most clients agree.

It's also worth pointing out that if you are thinking of buying a site with planning approval, it's a good idea to have an experienced architect or surveyor check the design complies with the building regulations. I offer online consultations if your property is in the UK and you can book one here.

People in the UK put such a high premium on planning approval they forget that building regulations are equally important.


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