Civic-minded residents in the London suburb of Pinner were slightly miffed when Starbucks opened in the high street. But they were fuming when it transpired the coffee giant did not have the proper planning permission.

Despite this, Starbucks won a planning appeal against Harrow Council in May and has continued to sell its cappuccinos and muffins throughout. Ruth Boff, honorary secretary of the Pinner Association, insists residents do not have anything against Starbucks, but objected to the company’s approach. "We didn’t see why they should ride rough-shod over the system. Large organisations feel they don’t have to comply with the same regulations that everyone else does."

The wrangle is the latest in a long line of local run-ins with coffee chains; another recent high-profile case was in Brighton, where the city council refused permission for Starbucks to change a former shop into a café. Despite this, Starbucks went on trading, angering local residents, shoppers and planners and, following a planning inquiry last summer, inspectors found in Starbucks’ favour.

The same thing happened in Hertford last year, where independent café Serendipity Foods had had its application to extend the business into the shop next door with extra tables turned down by local planners, who said the shop should be for retail use only. Starbucks also applied for planning permission to move into the same shop and was turned down by the council but moved in anyway.

At the time, Serendipity voiced its frustration that Starbucks was trading openly from the shop that it had been denied. A year later, owner Carla Duffield says local people got behind her store and sent letters of protest, but adds it has not affected trade: "It’s just encouraged us to do different things; we’ve kept our loyal customers."

Starbucks defends its actions and explains that planning law for all coffee shops is complex. Tim McCoy, UK and Ireland head of communications, explains: "Starbucks, like every other operator, encounters the situation whereby local planning authorities interpret the guidance in different ways. This means that a small number of applications have to be settled through a formal process. We are working hard to pick up on these sensitivities and listen closely to local concerns."

It’s not only Starbucks that has incurred locals’ ire. In 2008, local traders were enraged when Costa Coffee opened a café in Barnstaple High Street, without planning permission for change of use and listed building consent. The firm denied it had breached planning laws and continued to trade.

Hilary Gilham owns the Cafécino coffee shop in Barnstaple and objected when Costa moved in. She says it smacks of bully-boy tactics and is piqued at the chain’s arrogance: "I know that an empty unit doesn’t add to the viability of a town centre, but it doesn’t seem fair when independent operators apply for planning permission and are turned down."

A Costa spokeswoman insists that it always tries to comply with all necessary local authority requirements, including planning permission. "Only last week we received consent for a new store in Chippenham," she says. "However, on the rare occasion where we have encountered difficulty, we have worked with the local authority," she adds.

Perhaps it’s not that surprising that these conflicts emerge when you consider the rapid growth rate of coffee shops in the UK. Allegra Strategies reports that there are 3,200 coffee-focused chains, including 1,100 Costa shops, 710 Starbucks and 425 Caffè Nero outlets.

Its recent report, The Role of Coffee Shops on the High Street, found that 35% of the adult population visit coffee shops in a typical week. Not only that, it says coffee shops contribute up to 25% of footfall to high streets, while 40% of local businesses believe they get a direct sales boost because of the presence of coffee shops. That is a heck of an incentive for local councils looking to revitalise their struggling high streets.

Anya Gascoine-Marco, senior project manager at Allegra Strategies, believes that the big brands are more confident this year than they were last year and are being more aggressive.

However, she also believes there is often misunderstanding over A1 and A3 planning permission.

Says Gascoine-Marco: "They’re opening under one permission, thinking they are able to do so, then finding that the council is demanding another one. It’s difficult, because local authorities differ, which causes confusion. One can say A1 is fine, because you don’t cook on the premises, while another says they don’t care whether you cook or not you still need A3."

Chris Green, associate partner at planning consultants DPP, agrees that it is a very grey area and depends on the circumstances of each case, while different councils take different approaches. "The Use Classes Order defines whether the premises is a ’shop’, or a ’cafe and restaurant’," he says. "The box you tick can have significant implications for getting planning permission, but coffee shops sit between the two categories and consequently, decisions can often be very subjective."

Gascoine-Marco reports that small operators are affected by this confusion too. Maybe so, but unlike the big chains, most would find it hard to demonstrate their popularity it would be an easier sell if they had been open for months before getting A3 permission.

Most small shops do not have the resources or the gall to try this ploy. But a few do. Igor Bekaert, MD at the nine-strong Belgique Bakery chain, proves that it’s not just the big boys who are taking advantage of the confusing planning rules. He admits that he has opened stores with A1 planning permission and then put in tables and chairs. He explains: "I look first for A3 sites, but it doesn’t scare me to find A1 sites then open up anyway; Walthamstow council understood what we were doing and I then didn’t have to apply for A3, while Epping Forest told me I couldn’t open in the evenings."

Bekaert is feeling more comfortable about getting retrospective permission and, as a veteran of a few planning committees, he reckons you just need to be prepared. "I can understand why small companies are scared, but I’ve never been refused."

Survival of the biggest?

l Caffè Nero was criticised for opening a new store in Darlington without planning permission in 2008. It took over a sports shop at Horsemarket and started trading, even though planners had not given the firm permission to sell food and drink at the site. Caffè Nero is still trading.

l Costa Coffee in High Street, Crowthorne, opened without getting permission to change the use of the former travel agent and estate agent plots it occupied in 2009. Bracknell Forest Council received five letters objecting to the shop opening, but still awarded it retrospective permission.

l Costa Coffee won its appeal to retain its café in Beverley after the business opened without permission. East Riding Council had refused retrospective permission and served an enforcement notice for the business to cease. But after a public inquiry, planning permission was granted.

A1 and A3 classifications

The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 states that when food and drink is consumed on the premises, a property is classified as A3, while if retailers sell takeaway food and drink, it is classed as A1. Coffee shops fall between the two and classification is assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors such as: number of seats; proportion of eat-in and takeaway trade; food range and extent of cooking; time consumers are likely to stay; branding and external appearance.