It wasn't that long ago that developers and operators only needed to take a few simple steps to secure planning permission in the country house sector. In general the idea of restoring a dilapidated building was enough.
However, today, the planning process is far more stringent and everything is protected - not only the buildings themselves but also the landscape, trees and ecology.
In order to secure permission to turn an historical building into a hotel or other hospitality venue, you have to prove there will be no harm or detriment to the existing building. In most cases you also have to show how development will improve it.
This requires a great deal of expertise, not only from the architects but also from a whole raft of other specialists. On current applications up to eight different consultants are employed to provide specialist input into the planning submission and to deal with the responses from authorities.
The strategies that can be used to obtain consent can be summarised in four main points:
Prepare a reasonable and appropriate proposal for the planners
There is no point starting with an extravagant design and reducing it down to something acceptable later. You will be more successful if you begin initial negotiations with an appropriate and considered scheme, supported by relevant research and justified by a business case.
Do thorough historical research to maintain credibility
It’s essential to know at least as much as the local conservation officer, if not more. Present a scheme that meets the needs of the business without overlooking the historical significance of the building. Relate this to the expectations of the market, the relevant local competition and the long-term financial viability of the hotel.
Use the process of pre-application to identify key issues early on
Anticipate over a dozen critical aspects to the application. Issues range from the architectural or historic importance of the building itself to trees being in the way of extensions, sensitive ecology, or traffic concerns on country lanes. There will often be one that is a potential problem and needs to be dealt with early to reduce risk.
Using the submission of an outline proposal to the Local Planning Authority for consultation and discussion allows the planners to establish the acceptability in principle of the proposal but also to highlight significant issues.
Get a good architect: Appointing a firm with real experience and which is used to dealing with complex buildings in sensitive contexts is invaluable. Not all existing or potential country hotels are Grade I listed, but most have particular qualities or surroundings that mean they require a sensitive and specialist approach.
Generally however, the planning system supports the use of historic assets, such as country houses, as hotels. Even English Heritage (now Historic England) supports the appropriate development of assets.
When it comes to the hurdles to be overcome before achieving permission, there are usually viable solutions. As the planning process has become more demanding, methods have been developed for dealing with it, and in the vast majority of cases, clients are able to obtain the consent they need.
Country house hotels really are the most wonderful properties to work with; while sometimes awkward and often frustrating, they are ultimately always rewarding in the end.
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