Beginners’ Guide to Building in France: French Planning Permission


Essential Reading

Beginners’ Guide to Building in France: French Planning Permission

From new build properties to extensions, conversions, and renovations—there are many reasons that you might need to apply for planning permission in France and securing the correct permit for your planned works is a legal obligation.

Use this beginners’ guide to get an overview of the French planning system, learn when you need a permit, and understand the regulatory framework and processes. Follow the links to our Essential Reading articles to learn more about the different types of permits, how to decide which permit you need, the application process and necessary documentation, and the consequences of work being carried out without a permit.

In this article:

  • The French Planning System
    • What happens if you don’t obtain planning permission?
  • When Do You Need Planning Permission in France?
    • Constructible land for new-build projects
    • Existing Structures
      • External changes, Extensions, Barn Conversions, Attic Conversions, Swimming Pools, Sheds, Greenhouses & Polytunnels, Camping & Glamping
    • Regulatory Framework for French Planning Permission
      • National Regulations
      • Local Regulations
    • What Kind of French Planning Permission Do You Need?
      • Certificat d’urbanisme
      • Permis de construire
      • Déclaration préalable

The French Planning System

While this guide is designed to help you understand when and which permissions you will need to carry out your construction or renovation project, it’s highly recommended to seek professional advice and/or consult your Mairie in the early stages to confirm the kind of permissions required.

French planning permission law is notoriously complex, with various national and local regulations in place and many local idiosyncrasies to account for. The best advice is not to make any assumptions, either about whether you need a permit or about whether your specific project falls within the norm when it comes to planning rules.

What happens if you don’t obtain planning permission?

Deciding to move ahead with a project without the correct planning permissions in place is a highly risky move and, more often than not, results in problems.

Not only might you be issued with an order to demolish your newly built garden shed or boundary wall, but missing planning permissions can also cause a problem when it comes to selling your property. Even if you are not ordered to return the structure to its original condition, the minimum you will be required to do is to apply for retrospective permission or regularization. Illegally built structures or additions to your French home will also not be insured and could even lead to an insurance claim being rejected in the event of a disaster or break-in.

If you’re purchasing a property to renovate or a plot of land to build on, you might also want to apply for planning permission during the purchase process and may consider adding a suspensive clause to the Compromis de Vente.

See our articles on French Planning Permission When Buying and Selling Property (Suspensive Conditions) and Retrospective Planning Permission in France.

When Do You Need Planning Permission in France?

If you are building a new home or carrying out major extensions, seeking planning permission is likely already top of your to-do list, but there are many other building and renovation projects in France where you may not realise that planning permission is required. It’s essential that you find this out before you begin any work on your project, so ask your local Marire or seek professional advice if you are unsure.

As a starting point, let’s take a look at the various planning permits required for both new builds and existing structures.

Constructible land for new-build projects

Any new construction, whether residential or commercial/industrial, will require a permit.  Land within a constructible zone should have a “CU” (certificat d’urbanisme – roughly equivalent to outline permission in the UK) in existence but will still require a detailed permit before anything can be built.

It is imperative that a CU is in place prior to purchasing land to ensure it is, in fact, constructible, and suitable for the project you have in mind. Individual building plots may be part of a “lotissement” (land dedicated to a small development of dwellings). If so, in addition to any general planning regulations, there will also be a set of lotissement regulations governing things like parking, rubbish collection, the maximum size of any building, design style, etc.  It is important to ensure you’re aware of these regulations in advance of committing to a purchase.

In the event that you buy land but don’t develop it for several years, you should ensure that you maintain a valid CU on the land – if not, you run the risk of losing the constructible status of the land in the event that planning zones change. The local town hall (Mairie) is not obliged to individually advise owners of changes to zoning plans – information will be displayed on the notice board and inserted into a local newspaper, but if you’re not living in the town or village, you may not realise changes are being made.

Existing buildings

Renovations, extensions, and conversions to your French home will likely also require planning permission, whether you plan to build a swimming pool, erect a garden shed, or repaint your building façade.

External changes to your French property

As a rule of thumb, any change to the external appearance of your French property will likely require a permit, and this may apply even to minor changes such as external paint colours. If your project involves repairing or replacing existing structures on a ‘like for like’ basis (e.g. replacing your roof tiles with new ones of the same colour and size), you shouldn’t need any permissions.

However, it’s still important to check local regulations (see the Regulatory Framework section below for more on this), as there are some cases where specific materials must be maintained for heritage or architectural reasons. What you consider ‘like for like’ may not match the official regulations – for example, changing existing wooden windows for PVC windows with a similar style and appearance may not be acceptable, especially when the property is in a “protected” planning zone (more on this later). Seek professional advice or check with the local Mairie, who are there to help and guide you.

Extensions to your French property

Minor extensions (of less than 5m²) generally do not require a permit in France. However, if they result in a change to the external appearance of the property, you will almost certainly require a permit.

Extensions of more than 5 m² will always require a permit, and in many communes, there is no automatic right to extend, so don’t assume it is possible without checking. Other limitations may be in place, such as extensions up to a percentage of the existing living area or a maximum size in m². These regulations are always non-negotiable, so don’t expect to be able to sidestep local regulations no matter how convincing your case (wanting to take advantage of those rolling countryside views will count for nothing if local regulations prevent it).

Attic conversions

Regulations on attic conversions typically depend on whether additional ‘living space’ (surface de plancher) is being created in the process or not. Generally, if your attic already has access, such as a staircase and/or external windows or doors, then a permit may not be required. However, as always, there are various interpretations to this rule and a number of factors to consider.

Fitting Velux or dormer windows, for example, would require a permit, as would other conversions that constitute either an external change of appearance or the creation of additional floor area.

Barn conversions

Converting any kind of building that is not currently considered “habitable” always requires a permit. Not only will this inevitably change the external appearance, but also because it is considered a ‘change of use’ – from “agricultural” to “habitable”.

There is a current move in most rural areas of France to prevent the conversion of individual barns into accommodation (though if they form part of a complex of buildings that already includes a dwelling, it is much easier). If there are currently no public utilities connected (water, electricity, etc.), then the utility companies will be consulted to see whether it is possible to extend the supply to the building in question. If not, planning permission may be refused, or you may be asked to pay for the privilege, which can add a significant sum to the budget.

It’s essential, therefore, to seek the appropriate approvals before beginning such a conversion and, if purchasing property, to ensure at least outline permission exists in the form of a “CU” before buying.

Swimming pools

Other than small above-ground type swimming pools (less than 10 m² and the temporary “blow-up” type), all others will require permission, whether above-ground or in-ground. Strict rules also apply to filtration and emptying processes, which must be detailed as part of the planning application process. In some areas, the colour of the pool liner or surrounding terrace is also governed by local regulations.

Sheds, greenhouses and polytunnels

In France, these are all considered constructions and are controlled by planning regulations, with some communes allowing none at all, others perhaps one per property, sometimes with restrictions on size, and others where no pre-defined limits or exclusions exist at all.  Always check before building that beautiful garden shed – you don’t want to risk the local Mayor knocking on your door with a demolition order!

It is also important to remember that constructing any of these will attract additional taxes – not just for annual property taxes, but also a one-off tax called “taxe d’aménagement“, levied after planning has been granted.  A large polytunnel could incur a tax of hundreds of euros, and on occasion, thousands of euros.

Camping & Glamping

Irrespective of the size or apparent suitability of land for camping purposes, permission is always required. The emphasis on “always” is deliberate because there is a huge amount of misinformation out there surrounding planning for campsites. It is sadly very common for selling agents to be unfamiliar with planning regulations, and potential buyers are often told, for example, that they can set up a site with less than 6 pitches without permission.

That is not correct – planning is required in every case and will, more often than not, be refused if the land in question is in a rural area. Some local plans specifically exclude the use of land for camping purposes. The only difference between an application for 6 pitches and one for 7 pitches is the type of application, not whether permission is actually needed or not.

The size of the land dedicated to camping use will also affect the process – over certain limits will require an impact study.  In addition, any buildings made available to the public – shower blocks, for example, will need to meet fire safety and disabled access regulations. Adequate waste disposal facilities (septic tank, etc.) will also be required, and approval for an appropriate system will be required as part of the planning application.

Other French planning permission requirements

The above-listed are the most common examples of when a permit is required, but there are many others where regulations apply. Fences, gates, tall aerials, and wind turbines are just some of the other projects that require planning permits – if in doubt, it’s always a good idea to check.

Regulatory Framework for French Planning Permission

There are two different types of regulatory framework that comes into play when considering French planning permission – national regulations and local regulations.

In France, even the smallest of communes has the right (but not the obligation) to create a local planning framework. In the absence of that, the areas fall under the governance of the national framework.

National Regulations

These apply anywhere not covered by a local plan. Known as “RNU” (Règlement National d’Urbanisme), they control what can or can’t be built in any given area or commune.  Planning decisions resulting from applications where RNU applies will be based primarily on whether the project is within the existing urban area of the commune, though there is no specific definition of what that means or where the line is drawn between urban and rural zones.

The use of existing land in the immediate vicinity, size of the development, noise, public health & safety, architectural style, etc., will all play a part in the planning process and will affect the outcome. Properties in a hamlet of 10 houses set 3 km from a village centre are unlikely to be considered as being within the constructible zone. Extensions are likely to be permitted, but applications for new-build projects are very unlikely to be granted.

Local Regulations

Local regulations can follow several different models, and they exist to control planning matters within the commune.  Most common are the “PLU” (Plan local d’urbanism), “POS” (Plan d’occupation des sols) and the “CC” (Carte Communale).

The PLU is the most comprehensive and places all land in a commune into planning “zones”, such as ‘agricultural’, ‘residential’, or ‘industrial’.  A set of rules will apply to each zone, based on the commune’s overall plan for the development of the area. The POS and CC tend to be less detailed but have the same overall aims.

There is a current move towards smaller communes joining together to form larger planning areas, sharing a common regulatory framework called a PLUi (plan local d’urbanisme inter-communal).

Additional commune regulations

Dependent on the area in question, many communes also have regulations to take account of a variety of natural risks – flood, fire, avalanche, etc. A regulatory framework may exist setting out risk prevention measures, and in many cases, these will affect or rule out certain types of development.

Examples of Local Planning Permission Regulations in France

The following case studies show how local regulations may affect your planning permission application.

Case Study 1

An application was submitted in a small town in Brittany to change existing wooden windows, painted white, with new, PVC “oak colour” replacements.  The commune had a “PLU” in force which prohibited the use of PVC finishes, and in addition, anything other than a very limited colour range – in fact, in this case, the owner could only fit replacement wooden windows, painted light grey!  Further, the windows had to have a horizontal bar at a specified distance from the top of the pane.  The reason for this was that the property was within 500m of the village church, and it was felt that traditional styles and colours should be retained within those limits.

Case Study 2

A similar application was made for a property where “RNU” applied, and the owner was permitted to replace the old “Georgian style” wooden windows with oak coloured, fully glazed PVC units.  This illustrates how different regulations can affect the outcome of an application, even where the two are essentially for the same modifications to a property.

Case Study 3

In the Alps, a project to convert a large building from commercial use to residential use required planning consent. Outline permission was sought and granted, but when the detailed application was submitted, the size and number of new doors and windows was restricted in order to comply with avalanche risk regulations.

Read our article Building and Renovation in France: Protected Zones, Listed & Heritage Buildings.

What Kind of French Planning Permission Do You Need?

The type of French planning application you will need depends on the type and scope of the renovation works being carried out. As a general rule of thumb, if there is no increase to the living space of the house, then a DP (see below) is likely to be the most appropriate.  However, a full PC (see below) may be required if there is increased inhabitable space.  Below is an outline of the different application types:

Certificat d’Urbanisme (CU)

The CU is similar to outline permission in the UK and is used to ascertain whether, in principle, a particular project can be carried out – e.g. if a plot of land could be used to build an outbuilding or swimming pool, or if a barn could be converted into a residence.

This is an inexpensive way to ascertain the viability of a renovation or building project at the purchase stage, or in situations where there are no local regulations governing rural properties. The application’ dossier’ includes a brief description of the proposed plans, including a site plan and photographs, but more detailed plans are not required.

Déclaration Préalable (DP):

This type of application is most often used to deal with more minor modifications to an existing property, such as the addition of Velux windows, changing wooden windows and doors to PVC, converting an attic or outbuilding into a living space, or building a garden shed or greenhouse. A DP is generally suitable for works that add less than 20m² of living space.

Most Déclaration Préalable applications (although there are some exceptions, so be sure to check) do not need a response from the planners. Instead, automatic approval is issued if the application is not refused or additional documentation or information is requested within a month of reception. If this is the case, you have an automatic right to proceed.

Permis de Construire (PC)

Most new builds, extensions, and conversions will need a Permis de Construire, and there are various different types depending on the project. Obtaining these permits can take anything from two to six months.

For more on this, see our article on French Planning Applications: Certificat d’Urbanisme, Déclaration Préalable, & Permis de Construire

Building or Renovating Your French Property?

Whether you’re building an extension, renovating an old farmhouse, or designing a new build property, FrenchEntrée is here to help! Check out our Essential Reading articles for everything you need to know about planning permissions, building regulations, and renovation projects. Or, for professional help, advice and assistance at all stages of your building or renovation project, get in touch with our partners at French Plans.

Article by Arthur Cutler at French Plans. 

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