Navigating the stormy seas of Council Approval

5 things to look for in a designer
May 27, 2015

For many, the thought of obtaining permission from council to build is daunting. Like a hybrid monster, its somewhere between obtaining a new passport, and getting a home loan. And rightly so, because anyone doing it for the first time will find that obtaining a passport or getting a home loan can be a walk in the park compared with sounding the depths of the council approval process. Hopefully this non-technical description from the point of view of a first-timer will help you to understand what is involved in obtaining council approval, so that – if you choose not to do it yourself – you can at least understand what is happening to your application which you have left in the hands of your architectural professional.




“A first-timer walking into council with a set of plans tucked under his arm will find that the first challenge is trying to figure out where to stand.”


A first-timer walking into council with a set of plans tucked under his arm will find that the first challenge is trying to figure out where to stand or sit. ‘Do I stand in the queue for counter 1.1? or 1.2? Or 1.2a? Or 1.2b? Why are there two counters labelled ‘planning approval’?’ (There is a difference, and you could waste an hour if you choose the wrong one) The solution? Walk up to the friendliest looking person you can find standing or sitting in one of the queues, smile, explain exactly what you are doing, that you are here for the first time, and ask where to start. They may explain that the entire system has changed since they were last here (yesterday) so they are not sure, but they will be able to tell you that you cannot submit hard copies of plans and forms. So go across the street to the print shop to have your documents scanned in, and ensure that they carefully name the files correctly. You must have at least:

  1. Building Plan (Coloured properly)
  2. SANS Form 1
  3. SANS Form 2
  4. Title Deed
  5. SG Diagram
  6. Application form (BDM 04)

While these are being scanned in, run next door to the IT shop and buy a cheap memory stick (Flash Drive). Ensure that everything has been scanned in the right way around and that it is all in pdf format, and go back to council.

By now some of your fellow applicants may have figured out where to go first, and you may find one kind enough to point you in the right direction. If you are pointed at a row of seats which have all got books and files piled up on them, it is important to know that these piles of files represent other applicants who are keeping their place in one queue while queueing up in another. If you find yourself at the front of the queue, but you still have a few piles of files ahead of you, the etiquette is to glance around to make sure no owners of a place-marking pile of files is rushing back, before you take your place at the counter. You where after all queuing in body, which surely trumps queuing by place marker.

Your documents will be checked. If nothing is missing, they will be uploaded (perhaps at another counter). Here is another tip: Always ask the last person you dealt with for a clear explanation of where you should go next, and what the next official will expect.

If your application turns out to be a Land Use Application, you will be given several documents to fill in and return. This is if you are doing something which departs from the standard, such as building a second dwelling, or building over your building line. Ask the official at the counter to explain exactly what needs to be done. You will have to fill in a new set of application forms, have neighbours sign forms, have any relevant civic association and ward councillor also fill in forms. You may be required to produce a conveyancer’s certificate. Once you have all of this, scan it all in again, and bring it all back. Make sure you ask the official who you should bring it back to so that you don’t waste any time waiting in the wrong queue. There is also a fee which is payable before they will consider the application further.

Once you have approval from Land Use Management (LUM) you should be notified. But you may not be – so make sure you phone in every few days to find out if there has been progress. (If you don’t, your application may lapse and you may have to start from scratch)


You will then progress to a Building Development Application (BDM). Your documents are all electronically circulated by various departments. If there are any objections, you should be notified so you can sort them out. Again – take it upon yourself to follow up. At the moment this process is taking as long as 6-8 months due to ‘system glitches’ and backlogs. So it takes some perseverance. There is another fee payable at this stage.

Once the plans are through the system, they will be assigned to an examiner who gives them a final check of sorts, and they will finally be approved. There are of course many complications that can crop up, such as questions over heritage, traffic impact, etc. But this is the outline for most smaller plans.

Don’t lose your patience with officials, for the most part they want your plan approved almost as much as you do.

All in all, expect to be frustrated, to stand in queues for hours, to be confused as to how the system works – because you are dealing with a constantly changing process, so even the most well-meaning official may not be 100% sure of how it works at any given time. Try to keep in good spirits. Don’t lose your patience with officials, for the most part they want your plan approved almost as much as you do. You will also be running around to ward councillors, civic associations, and neighbours (who may not actually live next door).

Please think all of this through before you decide to do it yourself or not. And if you decide to outsource the work, remember that your architectural professional can’t guarantee time-lines when it comes to council approval. Ask for regular progress reports, but try not to lose patience if progress is slow.

Finally, if you want to start building in 6 months’ time, you need to contact a designer now!

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