For many years I used a small stand-alone air-conditioning unit in my study (the box room in the house) and I even had a hole in the wall for the air vent. It just about worked in a tiny room, and needed replacing every few years. In the height of summer I would even put such a unit in the bedroom but that meant a vent out of the window which sort of defeated the object.
However, when my wife finally agreed to my converting the garage in to a "man cave" I decided to do things properly and get a proper split air-conditioning unit installed in the garage (as it was still) and four bedrooms. Yes, overkill I know, but they work well, and they serve to provide energy efficient heating in the winter. I know running air-conditioning has a cost, but it is well worth it for a good nights sleep, and being on a green electricity tariff it is not like I am contributing to climate change either.
Anyway, this was nearly four years ago now, and they have worked pretty well. Only one unit has developed a fault in that time, which is now fixed.
There can be only one!
Interestingly, a few years ago, someone commented on a picture or video I posted that as I had more than one unit I would need planning permission! Now, planning permission is not something I have had to worry about before, and I assumed only related to actual building work, not simply an electrical appliance. Indeed, the air-conditioning installer had not heard of any need for planning permission and he has installed thousands of these.
When do you need planning permission?
It seems any development needs planning permission, and a development is almost anything that changes the exterior appearance of the property. There are then a long list of permitted developments that allow things without planning permission, and these then have conditions and rules.
So, yes, an air-conditioning unit needs planning permission, but it can come under one of the permitted developments under Part 14 G of the The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. This lists some rules, like a maximum of one unit, not if you have a wind turbine, outside unit less than 0.6m³, not within 1m of boundary, not on a pitched roof, not within 1m of edge of flat roof - pretty simple stuff to be honest. The big one is that there can be only one (but there is a catch, read on).
If you look at air-conditioning installer web sites you will see a lot of companies reference this order and explain that you can have one unit installed without planning permission - yay!
There is a catch!
There is, however, a catch, and it is one even the council seem to be unaware of most of the time, and that is G3(a) states "the air source heat pump is used solely for heating purposes". That's right, an air-conditioning unit that cools, or heats and cools, is not allowed under this permitted development, so even if you have only one, it needs planning permission! Air-conditioning installer web sites do not mention that gem.
Does anyone care?
Well, to be honest, I assumed it would not matter. I mean who really cares?
Well, it turns out someone did! After three and a half years someone, anonymously, complained to the council that we had no planning permission. I mean what the? THREE AND A HALF YEARS!
And no, they won't tell me who complained. Oddly they did think one unit was allowed. I queried this on the basis that maybe they were confused about what I had - after all the permitted development is all about micro generation and renewable energy and wind turbines even, so maybe what I have has nothing to do with part 14 G? They confirmed that air-conditioning units did come unit air source heat pump micro generation! They also confirmed that if it did not then it would not come under any other permitted development so would need planning permission anyway! They then agreed that even one was not permitted if it cools as well as heats!
Interestingly, if it had been over four years after installation it would not matter. Apparently (thanks Neil for finding the reference, here) there is a time limit on these things. That makes the three and a half year delay mentioning it even more odd and annoying.
Well, I get a formal notice that I am in breach of planning regulations, and a questionnaire. Oddly they said I would have six months to remove them and asked daft questions like how long it will take and why, to which my answer was basically "every last minute of the six months you allow me, Why? Because I like my air-conditioning!". What kind of daft question was that anyway?
The only real option I have, if I want to keep them (duh!), is to apply for retrospective planning permission!
Applying for planning permission...
This is where the real bureaucracy starts! The council web site leads to an on-line application form, which is clear as mud. I eventually managed to make a filing, and paid the few hundred pounds for the application. I had to upload some "plans", a site plan notably, and some pictures. So, I uploaded a google earth view of the house with some arrows added and some pictures. Simple...
After a while they come back and say they need a proper site plan on a recognised scale. Hmm, but hang on, the formal notice I got saying I did not have planning permission had one of those. So I could literally send back to the council the plan that the council had sent me. They clearly have a plan of the "site" on record anyway, but I had to go through this fiasco.
Then they said they needed the size of the outside units. So I measured carefully and sent a detailed email.
Then they said that was not good enough, they needed the photographs annotated with the sizes. Really? OK, I added some arrows to the photographs with the same numbers that I had put in the email!
At this point they felt I had actually provided enough for the application to be submitted or some such, and then I am told the planner is not happy and they want a proper elevation drawing of the sides of the house on a recognised scale showing the position of the units...
OK, losing my patience and the will to live, I engaged an architect for another few hundred pounds to come and measure and do a proper drawing. He did a nice job, and they really could not argue with a proper architect's drawing could they. That worked!
Council planning web site.
At this point the planning application is published on their web site and neighbours are written to. Seems simple enough.
So I kept an eye on the site. It was not made clear to me how this works - do they have a set of rules for such things to which I have to comply, or do I just get permission if nobody objects? It seems a bit like the latter, almost.
Now I know!
Well, there was an objection filed, and guess what - objections to planning permission are not anonymous, so I know exactly who is complaining. The issue is not the units high up on the wall facing the road but the ones on the side of the house only visible from that neighbour (and only one can been seen as trees/bushes in the way of the other one).
Now, these are neighbours who are not usually a problem. We don't know them that well, beyond popping round for drinks at Christmas, etc. But they are the first to come round if they have any complaint, no matter how small. So I am shocked that this one point has taken them so long to raise as an issue! To be honest, we cannot be 100% sure they are the anonymous complainer and not just that they decided to complain once they got the letter from the council.
Their main complaint - the noise! These are really quiet units. No way the noise could be an issue surely, and at the far end of their garden behind some trees/bushes even.
Investigating the objection
So, the council investigate the objection...
One of the first steps was that the person investigating decided to visit the neighbour to hear how loud it was, and told me I did not need to be there. This seems odd, as surely they need me to ensure the air-conditioning is running when they visit. Indeed, a lot of the time the air-conditioning is "at temperature" and not running. If I am not there, then it may be totally off.
Then she said that she needed to check with environmental health to check what noise level is acceptable. But it seems she had taken no measurements or anything.
She then came back to say that I needed to have a noise consultant make a report! And yes, a noise report for all of the units, not just those facing that neighbour. Yet more cost, so I asked what levels were acceptable (in case I need to order a replacement unit that is quieter).
To my surprise she came back and said no noise report was needed, but I had to confirm the units met: "Noise resulting from the use of the plant, machinery or equipment hereby approved shall not exceed a level of 5 dB(A) below the existing background noise level (or 10 dB(A) below if there is a particular tonal quality) when measured according to British Standard BS4142: 2014 at the boundary of any adjoining or nearby noise sensitive premises."
Now call me a cynic here, but the only way I can confirm that is by getting a report from a noise consultant.
I had an alternative idea - I got the spec sheet for the air-conditioning unit and measured the distance to the boundary and sent that asking if it met the above requirement.
Time running out
Then, out of the blue, I am told time is running out - they apparently have a deadline by which to make a determination, and it was coming up! So I had a choice. They would either give me planning permission which was conditional on it meeting that noise spec. Or I could grant an extension to allow them to play ping pong with environmental health.
I double checked, and there is no chance of penalties or fines or anything. So basically I have said give me the permission, and they did. I now have planning permission!
This now leaves the ball in their (or neighbour's) court - they can complain it is too loud and they can get their noise report to prove it. If it is, and they prove it, then all I have to do is turn it off until I change to a quieter unit or re-positioning of the unit so quieter at the boundary.
In practice, as I say, these units are really quiet, so I seriously doubt they fail to meet the noise requirement.
Pondering the stupidity of this law
Having read a bit more, I wonder is there a way I could have done this better? To be clear I have not tried these and do not know the legality of them.
The simplest seems to be to get a shed lean-to on the house. This seems to be something that does not need planning permission from what I can see. Then, in the shed, install outside units for the air conditioning. This is something that does not change the external appearance of the proper and so is not a development and so does not need planning permission - no more than any other work inside the house like installing a new fridge. And also, nobody knows you have air-conditioning units so won't complain!
Another idea was to install one heating only unit as per permitted development. The air-con installer said these units can be set heat only. Then, as a separate thing on a later date you "modify" your existing installation to be heating and cooling. This modification is not something that changes the external appearance of the property and so not a development and so does not need planning permission. If I was only installing one unit I'd rely on the confusion of the council thinking there can be one unit allowed, but have this as a fall back, stating what dates the heating only install was done, and what date the modification was done. I'd probably even make a video of my making the modification. I cannot see how that falls foul of the rules at all, but does rather make a mockery of the rules.
Finally, and most iffy of ideas, was if you want more than one unit. Install one heating only (permitted development). Then install a second along side that is cooling only. Now, this does not break the permitted development on the first unit as there is only one heating unit still, but the cooling one needs planning permission - except there is a general permitted development for modifications to the properly using same materials. I tried that one as a reason to not need planning permission for cooling only and was told "I doubt your house is made of the same materials as the air-conditioning unit". However, because you do have one unit (permitted, heating only), the second (cooling only) unit is using the same materials so should come under that general permitted development. Add a 3rd and 4th as needed on the same basis. Then, one day, change all to heating and cooling as a separate step which does not change external appearance and so is not a development. Would that fly I wonder? If so, the rules really are stupid.
Anyway, what I can say from practical experience, simply budget for planning permission and go ahead without. If you are lucky they will assume one unit is allowed, or nobody will complain for four years. If you are unlucky you have to apply for permission, which seems simple enough! Well, that's my view anyway, even if not my usual "doing it right" viewpoint, sorry.
What a waste of time and money - actually not that much of my time to be honest - and now we have permission. Why did they bother?
We did think the neighbour may be trying to sell, and concerned over the air-con. My house is not the one over which they should be concerned to be honest. But if that was their plan, now they have a neighbour's planning permission "on file" and that will show in a search, so making it far more obvious to any potential buyer. Ooops.