house plans largeFrench planning law is a huge topic. However the rules and procedures were somewhat simplified by legislation which came into force on 1st October 2007, and by further changes to the planning rules as of 1 January 2012 and 1 March 2012.

Strict compliance with the rules is essential for any person wishing to carry out a “development”, particularly for those who are not local residents. The activities of outsiders in many parts of rural France are closely observed by local inhabitants. Nothing goes unseen!

The decision making and enforcement of the rules, as in the UK, is vested in the State. The State has delegated responsibility to the Local Authorities (Communes) of which there are some 36,500 in France.

In practice this means that control of planning is either in the hands of the local Town Hall (la Mairie) or is dealt with by the DDE (Direction Départementale d’Equipement). Establishing which of these bodies/authorities makes the planning decisions is therefore a priority when considering a building project of any kind.

The local plan

You should make enquiries about the local planning rules. The local plan provides the framework for local planning rules. Most communes now have (or are preparing) a local plan. This is known as the Plan Local d’Urbanisme (PLU) and has largely replaced the old Plan d’Occupation des Sols (POS).

These plans cover the use of land in the commune and set out the planning status of various zones i.e. housing, light industry, agricultural, schools and education and community activities.

Risk prevention plan

In addition, many communes have also introduced a risk prevention plan – Plan de Prévention de Risques (PPR). This sets out details of any natural or technological risks affecting the area such as flooding, forest fire, avalanche, coastal erosion. Where such a plan exists, restrictions on development or rebuilding are built into the plan.

On the sale of land or residential property, the seller must disclose whether or not such a plan exists. If there is a risk prevention plan, a copy must be provided to the buyer before the contract is signed.

Once the basic planning framework for the commune has been checked, the next aspect of French planning law and procedure to consider is the planning certificate – Certificat d’Urbanisme.

Planning certificates

There are two types of certificate – a basic certificate called a Certificat d’Urbanisme d’Information and a more specific one called a Certificat d’Urbanisme Pre-opérationnel. It is this second type (often referred to simply as a CU) which you need if you are intending to build a new property or carry our major works to an existing property.

However, it is important to be aware that even if the land or property you are buying has a valid CU this does not equate to what we in the UK call “outline planning permission”. An application for a CU must include details of the intended project and if a positive certificate is issued this means that once a full planning application (Demande de Permis de Construire) is submitted, it is likely to be favourably received.

Once issued, a CU remains valid for 18 months. This means that you need to submit a detailed planning application within that 18 month period otherwise the certificate will lapse. It is possible to renew a CU but strict timescales apply.

So, once you have checked the local plan, analysed the local risk prevention plan and verified the planning certificate, then it is time to look at the three main types of planning consent.

Planning consents

These are:

Planning permission – Permis de Construire
Permission to develop – Permis d’Aménager
Permission to demolish – Permis de Démolir

One of the above consents will generally be required for all new construction, for major works to an existing building or for demolition of an existing structure. However, certain small scale projects are exempt and will often simply need a declaration of intended works known as a Déclaration Préalable.

Planning permission

Taking the Permis de Construire first, once issued this permission relates to a specific building on a particular defined plot of land. It is not a personal consent to an individual but applies to the land and may be transferred with the agreement of the owner of the land to a third party without the need for a new application.

A Permis de Construire will be required for any new construction (with certain specific exceptions). If the proposed new dwelling is to have a habitable area of more than 170m2 then an architect must be instructed to prepare the plans and also preferably to apply for the consent.

In terms of works to an existing building, unless the work is maintenance or repair the following will generally require a Permis de Construire:

  • An extension which increases the existing building by more than 20m²;
  • In the urban zones of a PLU (or other document with a similar scope), an extension which increases the existing building by more than 40m²; however extensions to residential properties in such zones which increase the existing building by between 20m² and 40m² will still require planning permission if, once completed, the floor area of the entire building exceeds 170m²;
  • Works affecting load bearing walls or the external appearance of a building where such works involve a change of use e.g. from a dwelling to a hotel or from an agricultural building to a dwelling;
  • Restoration works to an existing building.Note that the new planning rules which came into force on 1 January 2012 remove the obligation to apply for planning permission where the works involve changing the internal volume of a building as well as making a new opening, or enlarging an existing opening, in an external wall (namely for a door or new window) – and this is the case no matter what additional surface area has been created.Permission to developThe Permis d’Aménager is required when two or more new dwellings are being proposed, where road access or communal spaces are being created, or where the proposed development is within a protected area.

    If in doubt as to whether this specific type of consent is required or not, you should check with the Mairie or the DDE before starting work.

    Permission to demolish

    If the building to be demolished is in a conservation area or is protected then permission must be obtained. In addition, some communes will insist on permission for demolition of buildings not included in these categories but this is not particularly common.

    If you plan to demolish and then reconstruct, the consent to demolish can be included in the application for planning permission.

    Declaration of works

    Where smaller scale work is proposed, a less formal procedure is sufficient.
    This is the declaration of intended works known as a Déclaration Préalable.

    Examples of projects for which this declaration is appropriate are:

  • An extension to an existing building which creates a new floor area of more than 5m² but not greater than 20m² (or 40m² in the urban zone of a PLU – see above);
  • As regards the construction of a new building (e.g. a garage or workshop), this type of declaration is appropriate if the floor area created is more than 5m² but no more than 20m² (as long as the building is no more than 12m high!);
  • The change in use of an existing building from, for example, agricultural to offices;
  • Attic conversions (although some require planning permission);
  • Creation of new openings (windows/doors) in an existing building;
  • Changes to the exterior finish of the property;
  • An uncovered swimming pool which is no larger than 100m²;
  • A new boundary wall or fence that is at least 2m high;Calculation of habitable spaceA key part of the recent planning reforms has been to simplify the calculation of habitable space. As of 1 March 2012 the term “surface de plancher” (floor area) has replaced both the previous terms SHOB (Surface Hors Oeuvre Brute) and SHON (Surface Hors Oeuvre Nette) and so is now the sole reference for the application of all the planning rules.Put simply, whereas, the terms SHOB and SHON referred respectively to (1) the total area of a building including the external walls and (2) the internal area of a building, the new surface de plancher refers to the internal floor area of a building where the height is more than 1.80m.

    The advantages of this new method of calculating the habitable space of a building are described generally as being threefold:

    1. It is closely linked to the calculation of the taxable surface area for the purposes of the development tax (taxe d’aménagement) – see below;

    2. Because the external walls are no longer included in the calculation, it helps improve the energy efficiency of buildings – because the construction of walls of greater thickness will no longer reduce the amount of permitted surface area left to build on;

    3. The fact that external walls are no longer taken into account means that the density of buildings on building plots can be increased by around 10%, which in turn helps to slow down urban sprawl.

    Reform of planning taxes

    In addition, new planning tax rules came into force on 1st March 2012, with the following aims:

  • improving understanding;
  • simplifying the system by reducing the number of different planning taxes down to only two – the development tax (taxe d’aménagement) and the low density tax (versement pour sous-densité);
  • promoting economic use of land and so slowing down urban sprawl;
  • inciting the building of new homes; and
  • saving public money by reducing administration costs.Local authorities are now able to tailor the tax in accordance with their size, nature and development policies, such that its application will not be uniform throughout the country.ConclusionAs mentioned at the start of this article, the provisions outlined above result from simplified legislation introduced in October 2007 and, more recently, in January and March 2012. However, planning matters can and frequently do become complicated and it is therefore essential that you do your homework and obtain whatever consent may be required or lodge whatever declaration is necessary, adhere to relevant time periods before you commence work and ensure you understand the planning taxes applicable to your project.

    Help from a suitably qualified bilingual professional is invaluable and will invariably make the process a lot easier.

    Sally Dilks & Barbara Heslop, Heslop & Platt – March 2012

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