How to understand building & planning regulations

What are planning and building controls? Why do they exist? Can you deal with them yourself or is it best to ask a specialist? As with any task, you can decide for yourself when you know exactly what's involved.

First of all, it's important to understand what planning and building regulations are. It's easy to think of them as restrictive tools put in place to prevent your from reaching your ambitions. Yet, they're essential safety mechanisms designed to protect you and the local environment.

The regulatory bodies will give you permission to carry out your plans, unless there are good reasons not to - in which case they must explain their decision. And if you disagree, you have the right to appeal against it.

Below is some information on planning permissions and building regulations which apply to any renovation work you might need to do.

Planning permission

Planning permission regulates the use, location and appearance of buildings and other structures. What might seem a minor alteration initially, can have far-reaching implications. For example, a structure that could obscure a driver's vision near a junction, might be a traffic hazard. Equally, a local authority can refuse planning permission because the proposed scheme wouldn't blend in with its surroundings. If you live in a listed building, you'll need listed building consent for any significant exterior or interior works. Conservation areas also have stricter rules than normal.

Building regulations

Building Regulations focus on structural integrity and the suitability of the materials used. Most building works, including alterations or extensions, have to meet certain standards to safeguard public health and safety. Also, increasingly, to guarantee satisfactory levels of insulation and energy efficiency. It's important to remember that even when you don't need planning permission, you might need to take Building Regulations into account.

Permitted development rights

You can make certain changes to your home without the need to apply for planning permission. These permitted development rights were clarified and extended in October 2008 to cover a range of household building projects that used to automatically require an application for planning permission. You can now carry out these projects without having any formal permission. Provided they meet a range of key conditions (for example, those relating to the size and height of an extension, and its proximity to a highway). The specific projects include:

  • Extensions, conservatories, garages and outbuildings
  • Loft conversions
  • Solar roof panels
  • Roof alterations
  • Patios and driveways

For full details of the conditions that apply in each case, see the Planning Portal website. Do bear in mind that the permitted development rights for houses are different from those for flats, maisonettes, commercial premises and other buildings. Listed properties also have different rules, as do those on 'designated land', which includes national parks, conservation areas and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As planning rules do differ across the UK, it's worth getting advice from your Local Planning Authority, if you're thinking of carrying out any work - just to be sure.

It's a good idea to consult a representative of your Local Planning Authority and the Building Control Officer before you submit a planning application. They'll be happy to discuss your proposal and advise you on the best way to comply with the rules. They'll also know from experience whether you'll need to ask other authorities about related aspects of your project, such as sanitation and fire escapes.

These consultations can save you time and money. If you want more information on planning permission and Building Regulations, you can find it at the Planning Portal website, where you can also apply online. Planning requirements can be complex and might need detailed drawings, a location plan and a site plan are commonly used. There's nothing to stop you doing them yourself, if you feel confident enough, or you can purchase them from a professional. The planning portal has a list of accredited mapping partners.

Safety first - New electrical regulations

Since 1 January 2005, new laws have been in place requiring anyone, carrying out electrical work in a home or garden in England or Wales, to inform their local authority's Building Control Department.


It's vital (and your responsibility) to be aware of any relevant regulations. That's because if you go ahead without permission, you might later be forced to restore the property to its original state, probably at considerable expense, or face prosecution. It can also be difficult to sell a property if you've made alterations without the necessary authorisation.

Hiring a specialist

If you prefer, you can employ a builder, or preferably an architect, to handle your application. Even so, it's still your responsibility and in your interests, as the owner of the property, to keep an eye on developments. For example, don't ignore a request from the Building Control Office's surveyor to inspect the site, or you could incur the cost and inconvenience of having to show them covered work at a later stage.


Take a look at the table to find out if you need planning permission for the work you have in mind, and if Building Regulations apply.

Planning permission table

Remember, though, that this information is for general guidance only. Planning and Building Regulations differ across the UK, and are stricter for listed properties and those in conservation areas, national parks or similar. Your Local Planning Authority and Building Control Department are the best sources of advice.


Project Is planning permission needed? Do Building Regulations apply?
Interior painting and decorating No No
Kitchen and bathroom improvements No Yes - Get some professional advice
Electrical work No Yes. All electrical work must comply with the latest IEE Wiring Regulations.
Removing or creating openings in internal walls No Yes. Internal walls might be load-bearing, and their removal could affect the stability and safety of the building. Seek advice.
Replacing or fitting a new floor No It's worth getting professional advice on issues such as load-bearing capacity, sound insulation and fire safety.
Installing or replacing a staircase No Yes. Safety standards apply - get some professional advice.
Replacing your radiators No No
Installing or replacing central heating No Yes. You must get a new gas boiler installed by a Gas Safe registered fitter. Also, any electrical work must comply with the latest IEE Wiring Regulations. Energy efficiency standards apply. Get some professional advice.
Repairing and replacing your windows No Yes. If you're replacing a whole window or creating a new window opening, standards that relate to thermal performance, air supply, means of escape and ventilation apply.
Decoration or repairs to an external wall No Yes. If you want to re-render, re-clad, replaster or re-line internally more than 25% of an external wall, you'll usually need to improve your thermal insulation too. Get some professional advice.
Paving more than five square metres of your front garden Yes - if the surface is impermeable and rainwater will run off onto a road No
Adding a fence, wall or gate Yes - if it's over one metre high and next to a highway that's used by vehicles (or the footpath of this highway), or over two metres high elsewhere. No, but your gates, walls and fences must be structurally sound and properly maintained.
Converting a house to flats or business premises Yes Yes - get some professional advice.


You'll definitely need to inform your Local Authority Building Control Department before you start electrical work, such as:

  • Adding new circuits to your existing installation
  • Any work (other than repairs or replacements) in rooms where there's water - such as kitchens and bathrooms
  • Any work (other than repairs or replacements) outdoors - such as installing garden lighting or sockets
  • Replacing a consumer unit
  • Installing new central heating control wiring
  • Putting up a socket outlet on an external wall

Your Local Authority Building Control Department is responsible for ensuring the work is inspected and tested. Where you have work done by a person registered with an electrical self-certification scheme that's prescribed in regulations, you don't need to notify your Local Authority. 

It's a good idea to make yourself aware of the Regulations before you start any work. If you need clarification, just get in touch with the Building Control Department.

You can undertake any of these projects without the need to tell your Local Authority Building Control Department:

  • Replacing white electrical switches and sockets with decorative finishes
  • Replacing or repairing a socket, light or cable in any room
  • Adding extra spurs, sockets or lights to an existing circuit (except in a kitchen or bathroom, or outdoors)
  • Fitting or replacing an electric shower, cooker, garage doors or gates (unless you need a new circuit)
  • Installing CE-marked prefabricated modular kitchen lighting systems to an existing connection unit or socket outlet
  • Fitting security lighting or air-conditioning on the outside wall of your house, provided there are no exposed outdoor connections (unless a new circuit is needed)
  • Installing outdoor sockets (pre-assembled kits only)

It's important to bear in mind that as the work has to meet the standards defined in the Wiring Regulations, you should strongly consider having it checked by a competent electrician to make sure it's safe.