Navigating the French planning system

Code de l'Urbanisme

  • PLU (Plan Local d'Urbanisme)
  • Zoning
  • Coefficient d'Occupation du Sol (COS)
  • Carte Communale Textes du code d’urbanisme

Planning advice and Clarification

  • CAUE - Conseils d’Architecture, d’Urbanisme et d’Environement
  • Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF)

Certificat d’urbanisme (CU)

  • Certificat d’information
  • Certificat opérationnel

Which permis is required?

  • Declaration Préalable
  • Permis de Construire
  • Permis à démolir
  • Appealing a decision

Code de l'Urbanisme

 The French planning rules and regulations are all contained under a global banner which is the Code de l'Urbanisme and all development must comply with planning law stated within this code.

Local Plans

France has national, regional and local planning and development plans that are interlinked and combine to influence planning law on a local basis. It is these local plans that are most likely to affect the majority of people.

There are 3 types of local planning directives:

  • Plan Local d'Urbanisme (PLU)
  • Carte Communale
  • Textes du Code de l’Urbanisme

The PLU and Carte Communale are the key planning documents and will lay down various development rights and restrictions.

PLU (Plan Local d'Urbanisme)

The purpose of the PLU is to determine a development plan for the commune (or the Communité de Communes) and the general planning rules that will apply to the locality and to specific sites. It has replaced the former POS (Plans d'Occupations des Sols) in most areas.

The preparation of a PLU takes place in consultation with maries, local councils and the communité de communes and is subject to a local public enquiry before it can be adopted. Once adopted it has a legal and binding force and where a PLU is in place planning permission can be granted by the mairie and community de communes. Otherwise all planning applications would need to be determined by the county planning and highways department, Direction Départementale d’Equipement (DDE), Direction Départementale des Territoires et de la Mer (DDTM) in consultation with the mairie.

(However notwithstanding this power, some smaller local councils are not able to offer a planning service so continue to rely on the DDE/DDTM to determine applications).

 The PLU zones the land into sections taking into account the social, economic and political requirements of the area. All development zones for residential, commercial, industrial and artisanal uses are identified in the PLU along with any specific constraints on the type of development permitted within them.


The PLU defines four main zones:

  • Zone U – New construction permitted - these are likely to be existing development areas and those adjacent to it where the infrastructure exists or can be provided to enable development.
  • Zone AU – Future development area, which will include either those where infrastructure is already available or where it is planned.
  • Zone A – Agricultural area and only agricultural related new construction is permitted.
  • Zone N – Protected areas where no new construction is permitted by virtue of their sensitive historical, ecological or environmental character.

These zones are sometimes divided into further sub zones N1, N2 for example each with their own specific rules.

The PLU will set out rules on change of use, permitted height of buildings, the distance from the boundary of the land that can be built on, restrictions on the type of building materials and the height of any new buildings and public utility services and requirements. (The existence of water and electricity connections may be a requirement for planning consent). It will also provide the percentage of land on any site that must remain undeveloped COS.

Coefficient d'Occupation du Sol (COS).

Within urban areas the density of development is determined by the COS. Based on the size of the land parcel in square meters, the size of any building is determined in terms of the amount of land that can be built or and the amount of habitable space. The COS of a zone will normally allow greater density of building in the centre of an urban area than the perimeter.

For example, an owner of 1,000 square meters of land with the COS at 0.25, is allowed 1,000 x 0.25 = 250 square meters of net habitable space.

NB If the property is located on a lotissement (housing development) then in addition to the general planning rules there are specific rules that apply to the lotissement, which are set out in a separate cahier de charges.

Carte Communale

Where there is no PLU in place there is likely to be a Carte Communale. The Carte Communal is approved by the local council and the Mairie and covers some individual villages and surrounding areas in the same way a PLU covers cities and towns and groups of villages. It also zones the land into sections each of which has a detailed plan that defines the development within the area along with constructible and non constructible zones.

Textes du code d’urbanisme

 In very rural and isolated areas there may be land that is not covered by either a PLU or Carte Communale. In this case the development rights are defined in the Textes du Code d’Urbanisme. Information will be available at the Mairie.

NB Always remember that planning zones are very localized and it is important to have a clear understanding of locally specific development rights. Do not assume that because something else has been developed down the road that it can be developed on another site in the village or town.

Pay particular attention to the proximity of any farms nearby - farms are required to be 100m from any new habitable development including extensions.

The Mairie provides the most common planning documents including building permit applications and the PLU or that part of it that relates to the planning zone of any property.

Planning advice and Clarification

Planning officers give no opinions regarding buildings aesthetics (that is the role of architects) the planners role is seen as simply to administer an application. However advice can be sought at:


Each local Direction Départementale de l'Equipment (DDE) or Direction Départementale des Territoires et de la Mer (DDTM) has a specific advisor (the "planning conseillé") who has jurisdiction over a commune and can advise on types of building permit required, explain and expand on the PLU or Carte Communale and confirm if a project requires the services of an architect.

CAUE - Conseils d’Architecture, d’Urbanisme et d’Environement

For any development there is within the code d’urbanisme a requirement to "establish the architectural project" this is an important concept because as well as conforming with the PLU or Carte Communale there is an obligation for all building permits (Permis de construire) to be evaluated for their architectural merit. However if a project will result in less than 170m/2 of habitable space then it does not have to be submitted by a qualified architect. In this case if a property owner submits the application themselves, then prior to submission it is advisable that they go to the CAUE for advice on the architectural content of the project. A project may be delayed if the owner has not taken this advice.

Although a planning officer may not refuse a project on architectural grounds, the planning department architect (employed by the DDE) may refuse it, however this is unlikely if the project has been taken to CAUE prior to submission (it is possible that the architect for the DDE and the CAUE may be the same architect).

Where any development will result in over 150m/2 surface de plancher (habitable space) a Permis de construire cannot be investigated unless a qualified, registered architect has "established the architectural project". That means that they have prepared the all of the plans and written documents.

Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF)

The Architectes des Bâtiments de France is a government organisation of qualified architects that have taken further study in restoration and conservation. They protect all the historic buildings and listed monuments within their department.

500 meters proximity to Listed Buildings

If a property is within 500 meters of a listed site, building or historic monument then the project comes under the separate legislation of historic monuments and the ABF.

Historic centre, conservation area, national park

If a property is more than 500 meters from a historic monument, but within an historic centre defined by the local plan, a conservation area or a national park. The development may comply with all the technical standards of the PLU or Carte Communale but receive a rejection on architectural grounds by the ABF.

For this reason if a project comes under the jurisdiction of the ABF then it is imperative to arrange a meeting with them at an early stage to discuss the project.

The ABF have six months to consider any Permis de construire and you should expect restrictions on the architecture and materials used. Once the ABF have made their decision there is no appeal process. The architectural judgment of the ABF is seen as law.

Certificat d’urbanisme (CU)

A CU is particularly important for those who are in the process of purchasing a property to establish what the building is, and what it can be used for in the future. There are two types of Certificat d’urbanisme.

Certificat d’information

The first (Certificat d’information) is an informative request that establishes the existing planning status of a building. This may be used if there is a derelict cottage on the land and the owner wants to know if in planning terms it is still classed as a cottage or habitation or if it has been de-classified as agricultural (to reduce taxes on farm land) and so may require a change of use to bring it back to habitation.

Certificat opérationnel

The second is an operational request (Certificat opérationnel) which is a request to perform a specific operation on a building or a piece land. For example changes to convert a barn into a house, or build a house on a piece of land.

A CU is however only an approval "in principal" and only lasts for 18 months . It is important to note however that an approval "in principal" does not guarantee a Permis de construire. This is particularly important for those who are in the process of purchasing a property to note because their development must still comply with the PLU or Carte Communale and pass before the ABF if applicable.

Which permis is required?

Under the code de l’urbanisme: Anyone who wishes to construct a building (over 5m2), to be used as a dwelling or not, whether with foundations or not (even wooden chalets and garden sheds) must in the first instance obtain a building permit of which there are different types.

Declaration Préalable

This is a permis for small or minor works such as:

Roof windows, minor works that don’t change use of a building or for a change of use requiring no building work or changes to the façades.

Permis de Construire

Creating additional floor space over 20M2

Performing a change of use which affects structure or or appearance of the building.

Also note that both of the above applications will require a certificate of conformity for any existing septic tanks or an up to date soil study to be submitted along with the application.

Permis à démolir

This is required if you are demolishing or making unusable part or all of a building situated in any commune or municipal council.

It is important to remember that in France the planning permission is generally attached to the land and not to the building and unless land (or building in specific cases) is considered suitable for development and specific reference is made to it in the PLU there are no obligatory development rights. Hence after demolishing a building land reverts to its virgin state which may be non constructible.

NB there are some special exceptions to the requirements of the permis types above but these are the rules in general.

Appealing a decision

 It is possible to appeal a planning decision within 2 months of receipt of the decision through the tribunal administratif territorialement - through the Prefecture or to the Minister chargé de l’urbanisme. If you don’t receive a decision within 2 months it implies rejection of the appeal.

Information Provided by EIRL Andrew Allen-Architectes

Contact: Andrew Allen or Veerle Nelson 02 96 83 47 25

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