You would think that smartening up your shopfront to give yourself kerb appeal would be all that is needed to please the local authority. But, as a few retailers discover every year, you need to get permission first. If your improvements contravene any of the local by-laws or planning rules then the council can issue an enforcement notice and insist on costly adjustments. So, even if you are just putting up a better sign, check first.
Those in conservation areas will probably be aware of local restrictions but even the shabbiest of neighbourhoods will still have requirements.
You need planning permission for: building new premises; extending, converting or altering existing premises; changing the external appearance of a building; changing the use of premises; and putting up signs or shop fascias.
Help at hand
If you are an unaffiliated independent, there won't be anyone to hold your hand although your supplier/shopfitter should be able to guide you, along with the local authority. If you are in a symbol group then there is generally plenty of help.
MBL store development director Peter O'Toole points out that head office has a vested interest in its Londis and Budgens stores. "It is the retailer's responsibility to find out if there are restrictions, but it's in our interest to support our brand," he says.
"We can offer advice and we use signage companies and shopfitters who can as well. Our recommended signage company will automatically apply for planning permission - that's part of the brief we give them and we have worked it into our 'package'."
A good starting point for independents, whether unaffiliated or symbol member, is simplicity itself: just look around you.
"We look at what has been acceptable for other shops in the neighbourhood," says John Heagney, symbol group director for Nisa-Today's. "You always have to be very wary when dealing with listed buildings. We never try to be too smart. I also think we have a responsibility to respect our conservation areas. And in these 'nice' locations, if you try to push your brand too hard in its normal format you would do more harm than good."
Heagney has had a lot of experience and can reel off the oddities he has come across over the years. "We've got a project in the centre of Manchester at the moment. It's an architecturally beautiful building but no external signage is allowed. So the sign is going behind the glass. You need to have a high level of dialogue with planners. You have to work with these guys and it may be a compromise in these cases.
"We had to change all our colours in Much Wenlock in Shropshire. It's close to the World Heritage site at Ironbridge Gorge and we had to agree to a white fascia in the end."
In another location the usual aluminium fascia tray, which is powder coated and then covered with vinyl, had to be replaced by a hand-painted timber fascia. And apparently North Yorkshire will not allow A-boards anywhere, occasionally going out on clampdown blitzes to collect those that have crept in (or, more properly, crept out).
Shedding light on the subject
Another fine example of compromise was reached in a quaint market town where a fairly modern store was located next door to a listed building. "They wouldn't let us have illuminated trough lights, although other stores nearby did have them," says Heagney. "Then the planners agreed we could have them but they allowed only some of the illumination over the name of the store and over the entrance so some of the lights are switched off."
Barry Coles, national development manager for Costcutter, sheds further light on the subject. "We have very few problems regarding planning permission for fascias. We tend not to use backlit fascias, but we use trough lighting above the fascia. This is not normally contentious with the planning authorities and has the added advantage of illuminating not just the fascia but the whole of the shopfront. We have had recent instances of the internal window murals being refused planning permission. Theoretically, a shop needs planning permission to put something of a semi-permanent nature in the window within 1m of the glass."
He adds: "The consequences of this are far-reaching and few retailers are aware of the facts. These are laid out in the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 2006."
As the following retailer stories show, the outcome with the council can be quite varied. Ross Baker joined Mace earlier this year and had his fascia 'fixed' with a snazzy blue illuminated sign. As the council in Beaminster, Dorset, had previously allowed a bright yellow plastic Premier sign, Ross thought there could not possibly be any objection. Wrong. "Someone objected," said Ross, "and the council said it is in a conservation area and has to come down."
He left Mace wholesaler P&H because of the cost of applying for retro planning permission and joined another group. But he went several months with no sign at all before discovering that he could have re-erected the Mace sign provided it was only temporary.
Surinder Rai spent £10,000 on new shutters at his Rai's Superstore in Bedford following an extension. Bedford Borough Council ordered their removal as it had recently changed its policy on shutters, allowing only the chain link variety. Surinder went around the town photographing lots of stores with full shutters, including a drop-in cop shop. But Bedford Council remained adamant, saying old ones could remain but new ones had to comply with new rules.
Surinder, with the help of a chartered surveyor, applied for retrospective permission and lobbied local councillors so that the application went to a committee vote and he was finally granted permission to keep them.
Brothers Shami and Saqib Gahfoor embarked on a huge refit for their Nisa Local store at Gateshead in Tyne & Wear, and wanted to improve access for both disabled people and mums with prams. "We wanted to install a ramp, which would have cost about £1,000," says Shami, "but the council said the footpath wasn't wide enough. They said we could raise the footpath, but the work could only be done by the council. It cost us £3,000."
The brothers are now set to install automatic doors and didn't think they would need planning permission. However, on Convenience Store's advice, Shami is going to check first.
Shalil Bhattessa and Yougesh Jegeswaran, owners of a newly built Budgens store in North London's Holloway Road, are making a real feature of their Good to Go takeaway range of smoothies, salt beef from the carvery and made-to-order baguettes. They have applied for planning permission to set up a few tables and chairs outside under the store.
"We have to buy a licence, because the council owns the pavement," says store manager Rajan Siva. "The planners came and had a look and they have consulted with our neighbours. We are hoping to hear fairly soon."
You don't need permission for some types of permitted development such as putting up walls and fences below specified heights and painting the exterior of a building unless the paintwork will act as an advertisement for your business, in which case you are likely to require separate consent under the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations. If the building is listed or in a conservation area, then you must check with the local authority.
Planning applications must be accompanied by details of the proposed work, a plan of the site and a fee (the level of which will depend on a number of factors, such as size). You will generally need to submit three copies. You must also prove that you own the land and/or building, or have informed the person who does of your intentions.
Applications are generally decided at a meeting of the local authority's planning committee, which you are entitled to attend. Enquire when these are scheduled because it could mean the difference of several weeks between submitting and gaining permission.
Some applications won't go to committee, but will be routinely assessed by planning officers.
Anyone can comment on your proposals and their views will be taken into account. A decision should take about eight weeks.
To help yourself prepare, go to the businesslink.gov.uk website.
The council will consider the following factors when making its decision:
Whether your plans fit with the council's development strategy for the area
Size, number, layout and siting of buildings; external appearance and height
Proposed use, means of access, landscaping and impact
Availability of infrastructure such as roads and water supply
Effects on parking and traffic.
A head start
Rule number one is check with your local council. Just because in another time, another place, you had permission for those shutters, fascia, ramp, lighting etc, doesn't mean you will be able to do the same thing here and now. You should always apply for planning permission before work starts. If you don't, you might be served with an enforcement notice requiring you to remove any unauthorised changes. You can meet a planning officer for an informal discussion in advance.
There are more than 400 local authorities and each has its own 'take' on the planning regulations. What might be allowed in one area may be forbidden somewhere else.
You may also want to check your plans in advance with anyone who might be affected - such as residents or other businesses - as their views will be taken into account when your application is considered.
If the work is something large, like extending, the planning department will inform your neighbours and may advertise your application in the local newspaper. A copy will also be placed in the council's planning register and on its website (a good way to keep up with rivals' plans).
If you have made changes and the council comes down on you, you can apply restrospectively for planning permission. But it makes sense to get it before you start.