Moving to France for a job, retirement or a different way of life is always a big move, but it can become far more complicated and stressful if you decide to renovate or build a home. While there are some similarities between the planning regulations in France and the UK, negotiating the design, planning, and building phases of a construction project in a foreign country could be a little more difficult. Although the planning laws in France are more flexible than they are in many other parts of Europe, there are still some important procedural differences to be aware of if your project is to be legal and successful.
What is a 'plan local d'urbanisme'?
A plan local d'urbanisme (PLU) is the French name for a local plan that allows the building of residential property on a specific area of land. If you intend to build or extend your property in an area with a PLU, the process will be relatively straightforward - you will simply need to abide by the rules and regulations on building projects as laid out by the PLU.
The drawing up of a PLU is the responsibility of the local commune; however, in rural areas there is a significant chance that no PLU is in place. There is the possibility that several local communes in rural areas have cooperated in order to draw up a 'carte communale' that performs a very similar function, but it is essential that you check with the local ‘mairie’ before starting your project.
The main aim of a PLU is to give every person who is planning building work in the area a set of guidelines that dictates what can and can't be built. A PLU will be specific to the area, and there will usually be significant differences between communes, depending on the needs and infrastructure of the relevant jurisdiction.
How is a PLU devised?
The process of developing a PLU involves all the relevant public offices in the affected area, and a public enquiry must take place before it can be adopted. This gives local residents the chance to have their say, reject specific principles of the PLU or object to the entire plan. However, once the plan has been agreed upon and ratified, it becomes a legally binding document.
How does a PLU affect your ability to obtain planning permission?
If a PLU is already in place in the area you wish to build on, the process of applying for planning permission is streamlined, and it involves making an application to the local town hall (’mairie’). However, in areas without such a plan, a more complex planning application will need to be lodged with the regional planning department - known in France as the ‘Direction Régionale de l'Environnement, de l'Aménagement et du Logement’ (DREAL). Unfortunately, many small, rural communes in France don't operate PLU planning, so you may have no other alternative than to make a more time-consuming, complex planning application with the DREAL.
How does a PLU work?
A PLU typically divides a commune into four different planning zones, commonly referred to as zoning in the UK and other European countries.
Zone U. This is an area where new construction projects are permitted. They are usually areas which have existing developments close by and where roads and utilities can cope with new builds.
Zone AU. This is an area of land that has been designated for future construction projects, and it will likely be close to existing infrastructure or planned infrastructure projects such as roads and power supplies.
Zone A. This is an agricultural section of land, and only applications for agricultural buildings will be approved.
Zone N. These areas are subject to very strict planning regulations due to their environmental, ecological or historical significance.
Following the rules
A specific set of rules will apply to every section of land covered in a PLU, and any submitted plans will need to strictly adhere to those rules if they are to be approved without delay. The rules include building arrangements, architectural criteria, the height of the proposed buildings and change of use - if that is the case. The rules will also dictate how many individual buildings can be built on every section of land - known as the 'coefficient d'occupation des sols' (COS) in France. If the property is located in a housing development - known in France as a ‘lotissement’ - you will also need to abide to an extra set of rules as laid out in the 'cahier de charges'.
The PLU will also list restrictions that apply to new builds on the land, and they will often relate to areas which have public spaces, sites of historic importance and areas of great natural beauty. There will also be restrictions placed on areas which are prone to flooding and subsidence, and they will be stated in a risk prevention component of the PLU called the 'Plan de Prévention des Risques'.
Only by following the rules and regulations governing planning and zoning in France can you protect your investment and ensure your property is built in a timely and legal manner. With the help of expert advice from a local architect or developer, you should be able to build a home to be proud of.