I’m very cynical about planners, having had a lot of bad experiences with them in the past. They will say ‘maybe’ until they can’t say it any longer, when they come down off the fence and just say ‘NO’. When you try to establish whether there is any reason or justification for them saying ‘NO’, they will fob you off with phrases like ‘over-development’ and ‘out of scale and character with the local area’.  These actually mean nothing and can’t be contested in any logical way – which is how they like it!  After all my frustration, I was very pleased to find that there was somebody out there who was actually having a lot more success than me.  I wanted to see how it was done.

Barry Sutton is clearly a very successful man. He has had more joy in the planning game than anybody I have ever met.  He’s put forward a total of around ten developments, and has never had a commercial development refused.  Admittedly, he’s had a few battles with the planners, but after an appeal here and a revision there, he’s always come out quids in.  He works predominantly in his local area, and has continued learning about his council’s planning policy in great detail by sitting through countless dull planning meetings.  It’s this expert knowledge of the actual interpretation of the tedious, confusing and often downright silly planning rules are that makes the difference.  Anyone can read a planning policy, but to second guess a planner takes a veritable genius.  His very particular expertise has enabled him to make a very tidy profit from the schemes he has put together.  I’m slightly suspicious of his level of success, and so I consulted with one of my spies who’s a planning expert.  It’s his view that Barry’s success comes down to being a bit of a planning anorak who’s learned to play his local planning game in intricate detail – plus a good bit of luck.  If Barry was a chess player, he’d know the names of all the openings.  If he was a poker man, he could tell you the exact percentage chance of hitting a full house when you’ve got a pair in hand.  But as far as I know, he’s not into parlour games.  But what he can tell you is exactly how to play and win at the planning game.

The planning system was conceived just after World War Two, allegedly to protect the rights of the people who were adversely affected by development.  However, after generations of governments have tweaked and messed about with it, the whole thing is fundamentally broken.  It just doesn’t do what it says on the tin.  It does not guarantee the rights of local people – ask the people that live hear Stanstead airport.  It does not offer the protection to society and to the environment that it should do – as we can see from giant industrial cock-ups like Hemel Hempstead.  The whole system has turned into a very big lottery for developers.  Often the firms that are getting the planning permission most easily are those who are proposing the most objectionable schemes – huge, soulless housing estates which force people to use their cars all the time and isolate them from their communities. It is good to see that somebody like Barry is making money despite proposing developments that are generally small, appropriate to the local surroundings, and do not result in any obvious social or environmental harm.  Hats off to him. We would like to see more of the same in the future, Mr Sutton.

Barry follows a very particular style with his developments, focussing on getting a small, reliable profit quickly and then selling on for others to develop. He always buys the property outright and takes all the risk on himself.  This isn’t a strategy that I have looked at using before, so when I went down to his course, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of success he’s had.  He finds individual domestic sites that have the opportunity for development. This is not site assembly work, which relies on working with multiple owners.  His schemes are normally very minimal improvements to the site – but enough to make a profit buying the site up and selling it on for someone else to develop.  For example, he will extend a bungalow and divide it into two properties, rather than looking to demolish it and redevelop the whole site as flats. Barry’s approach is also quite unusual in that he does not seek to use options, unlike most developers at this end of the market. He always takes the planning risk – buying the site on the hope value. This is all very well, but anybody taking the course needs to be aware that the business model that he uses is risky.  It works bloody well if you’re as good as he is – but if you’re not you can find yourself losing significant quantities of money on bad deals.  If you don’t get planning permission, you’re likely to sell a site on at a significant loss in terms of agents fees, finance costs, surveys etc.  Being able to judge the decisions that the planners make is absolutely crucial.  But in terms of whether the course is any good or not, the business model is largely irrelevant – you can take what he teaches and apply most of it to any another business model you like.

I think that the general planning advice Barry offers is extremely sound.  There is therefore a great deal to be gained by going on this course for people who are involved in any form of planning work. It is invaluable to see new approaches and review alternative methods. I certainly picked up huge number of tips from Barry during this course. The main thing I think I learned was the subtleties of applying for permission in various stages. He has come up with some great tricks that I will be using myself in the future. The first one of these is to apply for an extension and subdivision project in two stages. First you apply to make the building bigger and then you apply to make it building into two units. This has the effect of making it impossible for the planners to object to the subdivision of the unit on size grounds – because they have already consented to the extension.  To a non-planner this sounds absolutely barking – but as an insider I can easily understand why this is necessary. Planners frequently give you objections and refusals on grounds that are not their true reasons.  You are then left in a situation where you have to untangle their web of false justifications to get to the truth. I remember one specific application I was dealing with in Bozeat, Northamptonshire.  The case officer came up with all kinds of spurious arguments as to why my conversion project couldn’t go ahead, but at the end of the day, all they really wanted to see was a reduction in the number of flats.  Quite why they could not tell me that in the beginning is beyond me, but I think the real problem was that they were not allowed to refuse the application on those grounds.

Barry has learned to use the grounds for refusal to his advantage.  For example, he’s done a flat conversion project where he cleverly put a restricted amount of garden land in, so that the planners would refuse the application for that reason. This is something I have never thought of doing. In my view, it is very clever. The result of this is that he can get a refusal on very specific grounds, with the effect that he can then go back and re-apply for permission, having made some very minor changes.  He then ends up getting his permission in the end.  He’s basically playing the planners at their own game. There is no real fairness or logic this, but it works.  You might as well accept that the system is full of BS and just learn to play the game.

The course is held in a hotel down by Heathrow (apparently).  However, when you actually try to go down to it, you’ll find it is not really very near Heathrow at all, so allow yourself some extra time to find the place! The course that I attended was very small – it only had three other people on it and there was plenty of time for questions and debate. The course was very friendly, Barry was very helpful and it was altogether a pleasant day. Since leaving the course, I have pursued my work with planning applications with renewed vigour (more of that in a later article, if I get round to it!). I am very pleased to have been given a kick that has made me go out and seek more sites.  I want to pursue this as true development is something I have a longstanding passion for, but previously have not had enough success to really motivate me.  Doing Barry’s course has really shown me that people really CAN do small developments and make a profit – it’s just a matter of learning how to handle your local planners really well.

My strategy is slightly different to Barry’s. He will take the planning risk buy buying every site.  This is obviously more profitable when it works, but also potentially very dangerous.  You can lose a fairly significant amount of money if you don’t get your permission.  Personally, I really don’t like to play things that way – I cannot afford to lose 20 or 30 grand in one shot if things go wrong. What I and many other developers do is try to work with householders to persuade them to sell me the property subject to planning permission, or with an option. This generally cuts your profits because you have to pay more to the householders in order to give them an incentive to hold out for the planning permission.  But the great advantage of this is that it massively reduces your risk. It’s often very difficult to persuade people to go ahead with this type of scheme – and that’s one of the major downfalls of the work I have done in the past. However, the relative risk of these methods varies according to the geographic area you work in.  Not everyone’s got the same local authority and, quite frankly, the level of success that I have had in my area has been dire.  Only one out of the ten planning applications I’ve proposed has made it past the informal enquiry stage, so I really cannot justify buying sites on hope value.  I’ve spoken to Barry in detail about this, and his view is that the sites that I am working on are probably in areas where the planners are operating to a different set of unwritten rules.  I live in Milton Keynes and the surrounding area is the part of a government’s laughably-named ‘Sustainable Communities Plan’.  (It could be more accurately named the ‘Concrete over the Countryside Plan’.)  This leads to a situation where the councils in my area are facing huge swathes of greenfield development, so their minds are focused on meeting their targets this way.  The small infill, conversion and subdivision sites that Barry and I work on seem to get a very different reception in the two areas.  In Barry’s neck of the woods, it appears applications like these are given a fair hearing.  However, in my area I am afraid to say that the planners are far less willing to allow this kind of development.  Personally, I’ve had nothing but frustration and time-wasting from my local planners – and I certainly haven’t made any money.  I only hope that with a bit of renewed vigour, I can go and out and make the system work.  The only thing that stands between me and success is the public sector!  (As is so often the case.)

Since the course, I have been working out a strategy for making the system work in practice.  I sift through local papers to find large numbers of sites that are potentially viable, circling any houses that look like that they might have developmental potential.  For example, these include houses which are advertised as being on corner plots or having long gardens.  Alternatively, I look for bungalows that are clearly surrounded by houses. I also look for sites that I know are in areas that are less densely developed. Then I ring up the estate agents and get the details of the properties sent to me, along with the site addresses. I look on the local plan maps to try and find whether the houses are within the settlement boundary, which indicates that the obtaining permission will theoretically be easier.  I then use a piece of software called ProMap, that Barry is a big fan of.  I have also met a lot of other people in the industry who are very keen on it.  It is well worth checking out www.promap.co.uk. It’s a very effective tool, very cheap for light users and altogether just perfect for people who need to make their projects work (I do not get paid for this recommendation). With ProMap you can see quickly and easily whether the site is likely to have development potential and this software will cut your viewing work down by ¾, saving you a considerable amount of time. It also means that when you do go out doing viewings, instead of feeling glum because you’re looking at useless sites all day, you spend your time looking around reasonably viable schemes.  That really cheers you up, and makes you feel a lot more positive about the whole experience.

So that’s the long and short of Barry’s course and how I go about putting it into practice.  The business model he advocates isn’t for everyone, and you need to be aware of the potential losses if things don’t go your way.  Regardless of this, the planning training is top-notch and Barry’s success speaks for itself.  You can take this course and fit it round your own business strategy without any problems – or do it Barry’s way if you’re confident and in a position to take the risk.

After the course, Barry has always been on hand to help out.  I get the impression he loves doing this, and he never gives the impression of trying to push you off the phone.  I feel I’ve found a really good long-term partner as a result of taking this course, and I highly recommend it.  Planning is a closed book to many property investors, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

If more people worked like Barry and tried to bring forward small development sites, our towns and villages would be better places than if we leave development to the mega-builders.  Get on the course, learn the game and play it – for satisfaction, profit and for the nation.

You can find details of the course at http://www.pp4p.co.uk/ or by calling 01784 880 909.