Trapped, as Lambeth changes its planning rules overnight

We started work on a loft conversion in May last year. The standard L-shaped dormer came under permitted development rights which do not require planning permission. But when the work began we applied for an optional certificate of lawfulness from Lambeth council. It didn’t review our application until September when it was rejected.

It turned out that the planning department had unilaterally reinterpreted the rules in August 2018 without notifying residents, builders or architects. L-shaped dormers are now no longer considered a permitted development, although they are in other London boroughs. Six weeks later, we were served an enforcement notice.

The government’s guidance states that certificates of lawfulness are optional and many builders don’t bother to apply. This means there may now be hundreds of “illegal” lofts in Lambeth.

If a council can change the rules overnight without notification, it creates a trap for builders and, by interpreting the rules differently, defeats the purpose of permitted development legislation.

BS, London

Permitted development rules were intended to free small projects from red tape. They have proved contentious, partly because of how poorly they were drafted.

However, the guidance issued by the government seems clear that L-shaped dormers are permitted and, at the time you submitted your application, Lambeth council accepted this.

In a letter to you it stated that an application for a certificate of lawfulness is not an application for planning permission, but is to establish whether works were lawful at the time the application was made.

Which they were. However, Lambeth seemed intent on applying its new rules retrospectively, saying: “The council’s approach has been dictated by appeal decisions since the summer of 2018, which have shown government planning inspectors have, in the main, not been recognising most L-shaped dormers as falling within permitted development. The council is mindful that some of the proposals recently refused will likely be appealed and is awaiting the outcome as a guide to dealing with such proposals going forward.”

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The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government merely says: “Interpretation of permitted rights is a matter for the local planning authority in the first instance. An applicant can appeal where it considers the authority has not interpreted the rights correctly.”

You have since done so and won, but it has left you £5,000 out of pocket. The court refused to award you costs because it decided it was reasonable for the council to review its approach following a series of appeal decisions.

Your experience suggests the law is a shambles. Anyone considering extending their home would be wise to apply for a certificate before starting work because, it seems, neither council nor government can agree on what the rules really mean.

If you need help email Anna Tims at or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include an address and phone number. Publication are subject to our terms and conditions


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