"What do planning lawyers do?"

Key Facts

Planning law is the law regulating the development and use of land

You've heard the term 'planning permission' right? Well, whenever someone wants to build on land or change how land is used, they have to get permission from the council (i.e. "planning permission"). Even if they own the land! This applies whether you're buying a plot of land and want to build something brand new on it or if you want to make additions to your existing building. 

You might think that this area of law would fall within the 'real estate' department. However, due to the number of legal issues that can arise in planning, specialist planning lawyers are often needed (scroll down to see exactly what planning lawyers do!). 

Planning law can be both a 'contentious' (so dispute led) and 'non-contentious' (transactional based) role. The contentious element comes from situations where the planning permission 'applicant' wants to appeal the decision made by the planning authority (so where the council reject their application). 

What do planning lawyers do?

Planning lawyers will work alongside planning consultants and developers to ensure planning permission is secured on a project. Often clients will be house builders or other developers who want to use land to build upon. The build will form part of a much bigger project. It is imperative for the business model of that developer or house builder that planning permission is achieved. 

A planning lawyer will work strategically with their client to ascertain the clients goals and recommend a clear strategy and plan of action on how best to achieve those goals. A planning lawyer may also need to advise on any weaknesses that are evident within the client's planning application or plan. 

A planning permission applicant will need to prepare a pack of documents that is sent across with the planning application. This document will include a number of things to demonstrate how the building will be built and satisfy a variety of regulations. A planning lawyer will review all of these documents and prepare a 'legal health check' of these documents to ensure they comply with legal regulations such as:

  • the Environmental Impact Regulations 

  • the General Permitted Development Order (i.e. what is allowed without planning consent)

  • Use Classes Order (each 'use' is categorised by class so using a property as a place of residence will be one class and using a place as an office will be another class etc) 

  • the Community Infrastructure Levy (this is a charge that a local authority might attach to a new development, the fees of such charge being used for developing the infrastructure needed in that area) 

There are lots more! 

Once the application has been submitted, the local authority / council will come back with questions. A lawyer will assist their client with responses to these questions to ensure the responses are consistent with the information provided. 

As mentioned above, there are areas of planning law that can be quite contentious... for example.. in the event a third party (such as the owner of neighbouring land) challenges the build or planning application or in the event that the planning application was rejected. In cases where a planning application is rejected, it is possible to appeal the decision leading to a planning Inquiry or Hearing. 

Typical legal issues that can crop up in a planning lawyer's work will include:

  • advising on section 106 agreements (when there's a big development, the local authority might request that some of the housing being developed is used as 'affordable housing' (see social housing sector) or may ask for a contribution towards infrastructure in the area - this all goes into the section 106 agreement); 

  • advising on highway works including section 278 agreements; 

  • advising on compliance and enforceability of Community Infrastructure Levy charges; 

  • dealing with legal challenges to planning decisions that are made by way of a judicial review or review under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990; 

  • advising on appeals and attending hearings and inquiries in connection with those appeals (this could include advocacy if you're a solicitor or these can be done by barristers);

  • advising on issues like Tree Preservation Orders, Conservation Areas etc; and

  • advising on planning enforcement and certificates of lawful development and use. 

What skills make a good planning lawyer?

  • Hard worker

  • Innovative

  • Strategic thinker 

  • Strong researching and technical skills 

  • Team player (you'll often work with other teams across the firm such as real estate and construction)

  • Interest in planning law 

  • Commercially aware - what is happening in the planning sector that might affect your client?