Jessica and Ron Spelton are keen to self-build, but would also like to make some money from the exercise. One way to achieve this, perhaps, would be to buy a larger plot, subdivide it into two or three and then sell on the other segments, possibly having put in services to add value. It’s a great plan, but finding the right site is proving tricky. Could a small paddock owned by some of the couple’s friends, which forms a gap between houses, suit their purpose?

The plot

The land sits just outside a large village. It’s on the junction of two lanes, each with a scatter of detached homes fronting them. It’s flat and there are a few trees on the road boundaries. It’s otherwise free of any obvious impediment to building – except for a small electricity pylon right at the back of the plot and one on the road frontage.

The houses on each side don’t have any significant upper-floor windows overlooking the site. The neighbouring properties’ boundaries comprise a close board fence and an evergreen hedge, both providing a high degree of privacy for their gardens. The site is about 0.2 hectares (roughly half an acre) so would fit the bill for, say, three good sized plots of land.

Planning basics

The key question for Ron and Jessica is whether, as a matter of principle, they could get planning permission for houses on this land. It’s close to a village with a school, shops, pubs and a bus route.

However, it does form quite a prominent gap in the street scene that allows views through to the attractive countryside beyond. There has been quite a bit of new residential development nearby, but closer to the settlement centre and with better pedestrian links.

Here, the relatively narrow lanes have no pavement and they’re not lit – both factors that are sometimes considered significant by local authorities. Ron and Jessica’s investigations thusfar have revealed that the site is outside the village development boundary, set out in a rather ancient (12-years-old) Local Plan (LP). Also, the land is not in any specially- designated area, such as green belt or an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). So, does the old LP policy still carry weight and, if so, are there any ways around it?

Planning details

Closer inspection of the LP situation reveals that the council is in the process of bringing out a new plan – albeit that process has only recently started, with a consultation draft currently available for public scrutiny. This document extends the old development boundary, but not quite as far as the plot, which remains in the countryside for policy purposes.

Ron and Jessica could ask their friends who own the plot to comment on the draft plan, and suggest that the development limits be extended to include their land so it could be used for self-build purposes. Meanwhile, a look at the council’s annual monitoring report reveals that it cannot currently show whether it has a five-year housing land supply.

This is not uncommon where old Local Plans are under review. The new strategy, when adopted, will plug the gap. In the meantime, government planning guidance dictates that current housing policies relating to the supply of new houses should be considered out of date, and so carry little weight.

This, in turn, means that new development that’s sustainably located (which means it’s accessible to facilities and public transport) can sometimes be permitted in locations where it would otherwise be ruled out. The Speltons have therefore picked a good time to look at this piece of land, as there’s potential of getting permission now, or of shifting the policy goal posts to make it possible to build in the future.

Planning conclusions

Sites like this are hard to gauge. There are plenty of examples of similar, relatively remote plots gaining permission, and other sites in similar locations being refused. Generally, it’s a very mixed bag and locally, the council’s approach appears inconsistent. One way to clarify the position would be for Ron and Jessica to get pre-application advice from the council.

They don’t need to own the site to do this, but the process would cost a few hundred pounds. Or they could get a professional opinion from a planning consultant. Neither option provides absolute certainty, but each would identify whether further effort and expense would be a worthwhile bet.

How to buy

Ron and Jessica have a dilemma, as they don’t want to risk spending too much money on the plot unless they’re sure they can successfully purchase it from their friends. It might be tempting for them to assume their efforts to investigate the potential of the land, if successful, would be rewarded because they know the vendors. But this would be an unwise route to take and could even risk the friendship if things went wrong.

It would be more sensible to take the same approach as they would if buying on the open market, and to ensure everything is formally settled from the outset. This would mean either agreeing an option or a conditional contract. The former would be a good bet here as it would give Ron and Jessica the right to buy the plot, on a specified basis, within a sufficient period to allow them to apply for planning permission.

The price to be paid could be a fixed sum or a formula, such as a percentage, perhaps 80% or 85% of the open market value of the site, with the benefit of whatever planning consent is achieved. The discount would reflect their costs and risk. A valuation formula would need to be hedged about with details of how it is to be laid out and what to do if agreement can’t be reached. The Speltons would need a solicitor well-versed in options to draw one up, and should be aware that not every professional would have the expertise to do this.

First steps

Because drawing up an option contract would involve some expense, the best route would be to seek pre-app advice first, and then take a view on whether an option would be justified.

At this stage Ron and Jessica only need to focus on the principle of whether houses can be built, so wouldn’t need detailed drawings of the dwellings themselves. A site location map (in the form of an Ordnance Survey plan) and a simple layout showing how the land could be split would suffice. The details of the houses could follow on later. However, with detached family homes of varying designs currently on either side of the site, there should be a fair degree of fl exibility in both the size and style of properties that might be permitted.

Conclusions

Ron and Jessica have an ambitious plan for which suitable sites are few and far between. Their acquaintances’ land might be suitable, but it isn’t a certainty.

They will need to balance their enthusiasm for buying direct from their friends with a realistic approach to both planning and buying. While the site might prove just a little too rural to be viable in planning terms, there’s still a chance it could work out for them.