Planning Law and Procedure in France

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French planning law is a huge topic however the rules and procedures were somewhat simplified by new legislation with came into force on 1 October 2007. The resulting rules apply throughout France.

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 Departementale d’Equipement). Which of these bodies/authorities makes the planning decisions is therefore one of the first things to establish when considering a building project of any kind.

The local plan

Next, 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 – le Plan de prevention 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 – le certificat d’urbanisme.

Planning certificates

There are two types of certificate – a basic certificate called a certificat durbanisme d’information and a more specific one a certificat d’urbanisme pre-operationnel. 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 the certificate is issued this means that once a full planning application (une 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 3 main types of planning consent.

Planning consents

These are:

Planning permission – permis de construire
Permission to develop – permis d’amenager
Permission to demolish – permis de demolir
One of the above consents will generally 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 une declaration prealable.

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
Works affecting load bearing walls or the external appearance of the property where such works involve a change of use i.e. from dwelling house to hotel or agricultural building to a dwelling.
Works altering the internal volume of a building
Permission to develop
The permis d’amenager is required when two or more 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 works known as une declaration prealable. Examples of projects for which this declaration is appropriate are:

A new building or extension to an existing building, not greater than 20m2;
Attic conversions (although some require planning permission);
Creation of new openings (windows/doors) in an existing building;
Construction of a garage/workshop not greater than 20m2;
Changes to the exterior finish of the property;
An uncovered swimming pool;
A new boundary wall or fence above 2 metres;
As mentioned at the start of this article, the provisions outlined above result from simplified legislation introduced in October 2007. 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 and adhere to relevant time periods before you commence work.

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

This article first appeared on the French Entrée Website in July 2009.


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