How to Approach Complex Sites : In Conversation with Louise Wheeler

Developers Boardroom

I met Louise Wheeler at Developers Boardroom. An intimate event run by SME developers for SME developers over breakfast; an open forum to discuss pressing issues, successes and challenges. 

De-Listing a Building?

I was surprised and intrigued when Louise mentioned a recent success to de-list a building following the advice of a council listed building officer; a virtually impossible feat. To put any heritage hearts to rest, the elements of the building with any significant historical interest had been removed by previous owners many years previously, so while it isn’t a strategy that will work for most listed buildings, it’s good to know that in exceptional circumstances it can be done, given enough time, money and patience. The delisting took nearly 2 years and required the services of a heritage specialist company to provide a detailed survey and report of the structure and history of the building, then a lengthy wait while English heritage visited the site to make their own assessment. Unlike other planning applications, there is no set time period English Heritage have to respond. You are in their hands!

Louise is a seasoned property entrepreneur. With over 20 years experience in the industry, she’s evolved and refined her strategy. She began developing her own homes, creating habitable roof spaces, enlarging and extending properties,  a self-build and a commercial build of a further detached house as well as successfully negotiating a number of lease options, complicated planning gains regularising properties previously split without permission and a buy and rent back deal (when it was still ok to do so!) while simultaneously working with her brother and father full time in their property service-related business. She led a team of 25 builders and contractors undertaking small to full scale refurb projects for insurance related customers. Louise also spent a number of years starting up and running the Bucks property meet as well as offering new investor mentoring.  

In the last 10 years Louise no longer offers any building or mentoring services to others, concentrating instead on their own larger residential, commercial and mixed-use schemes. 

After spending time with her I quickly realise that although de-listing the building was a slow and complex process, it’s indicative of the types of projects Louise gets involved in, buying developments which generally have some form of income, with a long-term approach and a fierce tenacity she’s able to take on projects that other SME developers shy away from.

A great example of this is a recent project in Streatham; a pair of Victorian semi-detached houses in poor condition. One half had an unlawful flat on the ground floor, and above that a neglected HMO with a tenant who hadn’t paid rent in over 10 years! The other half contained 3 separate flats. The whole building was in poor condition.

The property was purchased using 40% own funds and 60% commercial lending. Phase one was to tidy it up, make it safe and ensure it reached the required standard for a gas and electrical certificate while working with the existing tenantsto build a rapport and  keep the property rented while submitting the planning applications. This gave Louise and Chris an income to cover the costs of the lending and reduced the pressure and expense of the long and complex planning process.

Piecemeal Planning

To get the most out of this project they divided the planning process into segments, securing permission for the least contentious elements first.

Step 1: certificate of lawfulness

The first application was a simple one for a ‘certificate of lawfulness’ to show the ground floor flat had been in use for over 4 years.  (as a condition of purchase the previous owner signed an affidavit to confirm he had used the ground floor flat as his own separate residence.

Step 2: split duplex into 2 flats

On the advice of their planning consultant, they agreed to stop using part of the property as an HMO and instead ask the 2 remaining tenants whether they would be willing to share one single AST. With an AST let in place, it was classed as one flat and so, converting it to two smaller units was easier than a direct change from an HMO to flats, which Lambeth Council were likely to resist. With the approval of this planning application to split this one large flat into 2, they had a total of five flats across the two buildings, with permission to convert into 6 flats. 

Step 3: 7 units inc basement

Planning application number 3 sought permission to extend the 2 ground floor flats into the basement, (at the front only, providing large basement lightwells) creating 2 much larger duplexes, over basement and ground floor. 2 flats at 1st floor and 2 flats in the roof space. This was approved

Step 4: 8 units inc basement

Feeling encouraged that the use of the basement as living space had been approved, they then applied for 3 duplex flats in the basement and ground floor, two at the front and one across the rear. This was refused on account of a “poor outlook” as the rear facing windows of the rear duplex at ground floor only looked out onto a small courtyard and rear wall of the garden. There was also a question about possible root damage to a neighbours tree.

Step 5: 8 unit appeal

This refusal was taken to appeal where they instructed a report from an arboriculture  specialist who proved that the neighbours tree roots were not affected and the appeal officer  decided that the outlook was sufficient and approved the application. 

Step 6: 9 unit new build

With the 8 unit scheme requiring a huge amount of structural change to the existing building they considered it may be cheaper and easier to actually demolish the building and start again!  An application was made to very slightly extend the envelope of the building a little to one side and at the rear, applying for 9 flats. This was refused based on size and design of the new building, but the planning officer suggested they may consider a new build on site if it was kept more in line with the  envelope of the existing building 

Step 7: New design new build 9-unit scheme

Struggling to decide whether to try for the 9-unit new build again, or just redesign the existing building to incorporate 9 flats, they decided to take the planning consultants advice and put in 2 applications at the same time, one for a redesigned 9 unit new build, the other for a redesigned 9 unit conversion.

While Louise is awaiting the final paperwork from the council’s solicitors, she has been told verbally that both schemes will be approved. 

This project is a good example of the planning process. It illustrates the need for a strategic approach, how experience and advice from experts can make the impossible, possible, and it shows that planning is certainly not straight-forward; it takes time, persistence, problem solving and patience, which it seems Louise has in abundance.

Biggest Lessons

I asked Louise what her greatest lessons have been, she was incredibly open, she said that their experience has shown that planning takes a long time and the pathway is often strewn with hurdles to overcome. They’ve found that taking a piecemeal approach has worked well, establishing a base level of planning least likely to offend, and using that base position to improve and enhance the scheme. 

Tips for Planning and Development

As with all things in life, it helps to hear how people have done it before you, to learn from their mistakes rather than to make them so I asked Louise to share her top tips for anyone thinking about applying for planning, whether on your own property or as a strategy. 

Here’s her sound advice: 

-      Due Diligence – put together a comprehensive checklist when assessing any new opportunity. 

-      Always allow a contingency time and cost, a development can sometimes cost more and take longer than you think

-      Combine an architect with a planning consultant, ideally an ex-planner from the borough your submitting your application in if possible

-      Surround yourself with great consultants that know more than you. Pay for their advice before you buy 

-      Learn from others and by previous mistakes

-      Always have a Plan B. What happens if you don’t get the planning you want? – could you sell it on and at least break even?

Forward Focus

Looking ahead Louise and her brother, Chris still have some older single properties in their portfolio they’d like to sell, now looking to develop bigger freeholds generally 8 - 12 residential units or multi let commercials on short flexible lease terms. 

They’re a good example of what steady growth can yield, consistently buying one or two projects per year while always actively churning. 

They’re now considering looking for both their own projects as well as investing with others where the return and the project is right so if you haven’t connected with Louise already, you