Planning permission for commercial premises: when do you need it and how do you get it?

The two main issues we get asked about regarding planning permission are:

  1. Whether planning permission will be needed when building a new property, or making alterations to an existing one
  2. Whether a property is eligible to be used for what a prospective tenant or purchaser wants (e.g. as a shop or hotel) and, if not, whether they’ll need planning permission for Change of Use.

When do you need planning permission?

Whilst it isn’t possible to give an exhaustive list of circumstances when planning permission will be required, the general rule of thumb is that most new building projects, and any significant alterations to a property, will require planning permission.

Internal alterations and minor external changes are unlikely to need planning permission, but the rules are stricter for certain types of property (such as those in a conservation area or listed buildings). If you’re not sure, it’s generally better to err on the safe side rather than risk the consequences.

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If you think you might need planning permission, the first step is generally to discuss it with your local planning authority. This can take time though, so if you’re in a rush your best bet is to speak to a planning specialist or commercial property lawyer who can point you in the right direction more quickly.

What if you don't get planning permission?

So, what are the consequences if you just go ahead without approval? Well, the council can require you to put things back to the way they were. At your own expense. Ouch!

Beware asking the council for advice if you’re looking to discuss something that’s already been done too. If you or your landlord took out Planning Permission Legal Indemnity Insurance (which insures against the cost of putting things back to the way they were if the council finds out planning permission wasn’t obtained), you could void the policy by tipping the council off about a breach.

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Change of Use

When looking to buy or rent somewhere for your business, it’s important to consider what the premises can be used for.

Picture this: you’ve found the dream premises. It’s right where you want it and the rate is just what you were looking to spend. It used to be an estate agent’s but you want to open a restaurant. Will you be able to change the use without having to get planning permission?

In this example there’s no simple answer, whether you can or not depends on the size of the space and the type of building it’s in. If you’d simply gone ahead and done it, the council could have been in touch and made you close your restaurant!

For more on use classes and permitted changes of use, check out this helpful guide from easyproperty.

As you can see, it’s very important to find out whether you can use the premises you’re looking to rent or buy for what you want before you sign anything. Otherwise, you could find yourself tied into a costly lease or purchasing a property which your business can’t even use.


Our Lawyers

Tom Woodward

Paul specialises in all aspects of commercial real estate and property finance, with particular experience in commercial and residential development and investment. Paul works with a wide range of clients, from large corporates and financial institutions to SMEs and owner managed businesses.

Tom Woodward

Simon advises on a broad range of commercial property transactions, acting for institutional investors, large retailers, property funds and landlords and tenants of all sizes. He also advises on and assists with high end residential property matters.

Tom Woodward

Louise is a Partner in the property team. Louise’s special area of interest involves acting for developers in acquiring development land and the related plot sales.

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