Baffled by planning rules? Building's planning agony uncle can guide you through the local authority labyrinth. His two-monthly slot starts with some fictional questions. Next time, he'll answer yours.
Q Five years ago, I got planning permission for eight houses on a site but built only six. Do the two remaining plots still have planning permission? If not, could a new application be refused?

A Don't worry. Once you have obtained planning permission for a scheme and started development within five years, the rest of the scheme has permission for ever. There are instances of permissions granted in the 1960s for housing schemes that are only now being completed.

If you don't start building at all, you must remember that permissions usually expire after five years, so it is advisable to renew them before they run out. Once they have expired, the planning authority is entitled to consider what policy changes have occurred in the meantime that could justify a different decision. But in your case, this is not an issue.

Q I am refurbishing a property that was extended without planning permission nine years ago. Will I have to make a planning application now to cover the original extension?

A No. Development built without planning permission becomes, in effect, legal after four years. If you can prove the extension was built more than four years ago, the planning authority has no power to take enforcement action. It may request that you apply for a "Certificate of Lawfulness for an Existing Use or Development", but if the evidence is clear and conclusive, this should not be necessary, and an exchange of letters will do.

Q I run a small building materials company based in the East Midlands. I recently received a letter from a local housebuilder informing me that it has made a planning application to build seven houses on my land. I have raised objections and am seeking legal advice. What rights do I have to protect my property from this speculative application?

A Plenty, don't panic. It is quite legal for anyone to make a planning application on someone else's land, provided the landowner is notified. But even if the housebuilder wins planning permission, it does not give him additional rights over your property. People usually make such applications when they have agreed to buy a property or own a ransom over it, such as a restrictive covenant or control of the access.

Q During construction of a factory, we discovered a large sewer crossing the corner of our site. As a result, the width of the factory must be reduced by 1.5 m, which means we cannot build in accordance with our planning permission. Do we have to apply for new planning permission before we can continue?

A Probably not. Small design changes often occur between the granting of planning permission and completion on site. Planning authorities usually accept minor amendments, and deal with them on an ad hoc and discretionary basis. The key issue is whether or not an amendment is significant, particularly in terms of its impact on neighbours and on the appearance of the development. If the planning department refuses to accept a change to the plans, a new application is the only option.

Q We are planning to refurbish an office building that has a listed facade. What restrictions might we face?

A This is a common misconception. Facades cannot be listed on their own. The entire building will be protected. Under the law, listed building consent is required for any internal or external alterations. A listed building consent application will require a full schedule of all proposed works. All internal and external features that contribute positively to the building's historic or architectural interest should be retained. Carrying out illegal works, whether as the owner, architect or builder, is a criminal offence.

Q I recently made a planning application for three houses, and despite the support of the planning officers, it was refused by the planning committee. Appealing to the secretary of state has no guarantee of success and could take up to a year. What can I do?

A First, I recommend that you talk to the key members of the committee and find out whether you could modify your scheme or present it more clearly to satisfy their concerns. In my experience, lobbying can be successful. If that fails, you can appeal, and the odds are stacked in your favour. Most decisions made against the recommendation of the planning officers are overturned on appeal.