Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Which permits will I need for my landscaping project?

April 7th, 2017 | 5 min read

By Andrew Whyte

Are you about to embark on a landscaping project around your home? Are you worried about what permits you might need? Are you unsure which laws your particular council enforce?

Having designed and built over 550 gardens during the past 30+ years, we can definitely say we've had a lot of experience with permits. And we mean a LOT! Literally thousands of them.

So we understand the challenges, frustrations, confusions and uncertainty that surround permits. 

We've written this quick guide to permits for landscaping projects so that you can get a brief overview of some of the various permits that may apply to your project.

The first thing to understand about permits is that each council is different. So depending on where your landscaping project is, the rules for your local council may vary from a neighbouring council.

Generally, however, each council does tend to operate within similar guidelines. The variation between permits being required and being approved or rejected can also be complicated by the human factor. One person from the council may interpret the rules and guidelines differently from another so that can be annoying. 

And rules can change over time so it's virtually impossible to keep fully up to date on all permit rules for all councils across Melbourne. However, as we usually have multiple projects on the go with various different councils across the city we keep a fairly good finger on the pulse of what is happening with permits.

Why do we even need permits?

Almost all councils have two different types of permits when it comes to landscaping works.

One is a planning permit.

The other is a building permit.

The planning permit compares your project against the town planning rules for that council to see if what you are proposing to do is in line with those rules. 

A building permit assesses the design and planned construction methods of a built part of your landscaping project such as a deck, verandah, pergola, etc to see if it complies with building codes and will be safe. It compares your design to building standards.

A planning permit generally comes before a building permit. If your project requires both a planning permit AND a building permit, you won't be able to get your building permit if you haven't yet got your planning permit.

So establishing IF you need a planning permit is usually your first step. Because on that may depend your chances of getting a building permit.

The need for permits is determined by your design.

Whether or not you will need permits for your landscaping project is influenced by your council. But ultimately it is really determined by your garden design and what elements it contains, how elaborate it is and how it may influence not just your property but your neighbours as well.

If your project is mostly softscaping - that is mostly planting and earthworks etc - you MAY require no permits at all.

But as soon as your garden design incorporates built elements such as a deck, pergola, gazebo, pool, verandah, outdoor kitchen, fencing, retaining walls etc you are definitely going to need permits.

If your property also has additional aspects to it, such as an easement or a heritage overlay, you are likely to require even more permits and not just from your council, but also from other authorities as well.

For example, if your easement is for the sewer system, you might need a permit from your local water authority. If your property has a heritage overlay you might be restricted in what you can and cannot do to your property if it is considered to affect the heritage value of it.

What is a planning permit for?

A planning permit is specific to your property's council requirements. It can vary slightly depending on the requirements.

Generally, the rules covering planning permits can apply if any of the following conditions are relevant to your property and/or landscaping project:

  • Your property has a lot size under 500 sq/m
  • Your property is within a Heritage zone
  • You are building over an easement (permit from water authority also required)
  • You are constructing a new front fence for your property (this is specific to the street and council)
  • You are planning to remove any significant tree (as deemed by the council)

What is a building permit for?

Generally, a building permit is mostly concerned with the standard of construction or construction methods being proposed for any built element in your landscape design.

Works that generally require a building permit include:

  • The construction of any decking
  • Any decking structure that will be within 1m of the property boundary fence
  • Any open freestanding pergola within 500mm of any boundary fence
  • Any pergola exceeding 3.6m in height
  • The construction of any freestanding covered pergola (gazebo)
  • The construction of any attached covered pergola (verandah)
  • A pergola/verandah located more than 2.5m further forward from the house to which it belongs
  • A swimming pool or spa with a depth of more than 300mm
  • A swimming pool safety barrier
  • Masonry fencing exceeding 1.2m within 3m of the street
  • A non-masonry fence exceeding 1.5m within 3m of the street
  • A solid boundary fence greater than 2m
  • A retaining wall exceeding 1m in height

Timeframes for permits

We wish that we could say that there are fixed timeframes for planning or building permits with councils, but we can't. 

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of them (apart from first trying to establish whether or not your particular project needs one or not!)

Based on our extensive experience, how long your permit will take can seem to depend on an unlimited number of variables such as your project, the council, the weather, the time of the year, the day of the week, etc

The bottom line is that permits can take weeks, months or even a year!

It can also depend on which individual you are dealing with at the council. One might interpret the rules to the letter and be very strict, another might be looser in their approach and let minor issues slide through OK.

So we simply can't give you any guidelines for any particular permit as to time expectations and you will just have to wait - the only rule is "it takes as long as it takes". 

Of course, this can dramatically affect timeframes for the construction of your project and cause extensive delays. (We will always do whatever we can to continue to progress your project or work around any delays by working on whatever we are still allowed to build while waiting for permit approval on other things.)

At what stage will I know if I need a permit?

Unfortunately, this is another grey area that does not necessarily have a simple answer.

Again, despite our extensive experience with permits over the past 35+ years, there are still occasionally landscaping projects where we don't discover which permits we will need until the project has actually commenced.

In an ideal world, we would design a garden, develop the Master Plan and other associated drawings etc and this would give us a pretty good idea in advance which permits we may require. Most of the time this is true and we can pretty much say "We'll need a planning permit for this or a building permit for that or a building over easement permit here or a heritage overlay permit there... etc"

However, sometimes we will not discover the need for a particular permit until we have progressed the project to a certain stage. Or even sometimes applying for one permit can trigger the need for another permit that we didn't even know about.

A classic example was when we recently applied for a building permit for a deck for a client. 

When the council received the building permit, it triggered the fact that an existing planning permit for another deck had been approved by the council for the previous owner back in 2007. (In case you didn't know, planning permits are 'perpetual' and remain in effect until updated and modified.) So before the council would approve a building permit for the new deck, we first had to go back and amend the original planning permit for the old deck which had never been built!

Another more complex case involved a project where we needed to demolish a rear wall facing onto a laneway. We submitted a general written advice to council to establish whether we would need a planning permit or a building permit. This then triggered that there was a heritage overlay affecting the works which would require another permit. Because the laneway was a council asset the owner then had to lodge a $2000 asset protection bond to assure the council that the landscaping works would not damage the laneway. Then before work could proceed we were told we would require a public protection permit and a traffic management permit to control and manage pedestrian and vehicular traffic during the works. All to install a door that would open onto the laneway. 

We don't share these stories to scare you or put you off doing landscaping works but just to help you gain a better understanding of which permits your project MAY require. And to help you have the right sorts of expectations around them so you don't get too frustrated or annoyed. 

The golden rule with permits is to expect the unexpected and you'll be OK.

If you still have any unanswered questions regarding permits for landscaping works please feel free to contact us by email or phone. 

You might also find this article helpful too - Do I need a permit for my deck?

Andrew Whyte

Founder of Whyte Gardens