When is development immune from enforcement action? 

You may remember the case of the farmer who wrapped his house in straw bales. In 2001 Robert Fidler built a new house on greenbelt land in Surrey and hid it behind straw bales www.telegraph.co.uk.

In 2006 he removed the straw bales to reveal the house that he had constructed. He believed that the dwelling had become immune from planning control as four years had elapsed since he built it. Unfortunately, he failed to realise that the enforcement time limits only apply once the house has been substantially completed.

Since 2006 Mr Fidler has made a series of applications and appeals in an attempt to retain the “straw bale house”. Three applications for a lawful development certificate have been rejected by the Planning Inspectorate and at the start of the year Eric Pickles, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, branded the development as “inappropriate development in the green belt”.

So what are the time limits for taking enforcement action and why does Mr Fidler have to demolish his house?

The Planning and Compensation Act 1991 introduced time limits for taking enforcement action against breaches of planning control.

These time limits are:

  • Operational development – Development becomes immune from enforcement action four years after the operations are substantially completed. This would include the construction of a new farm building, the laying of a new access track and construction of a dwelling.
  • Change of Use of any building for use as a dwelling house – Enforcement action cannot be taken once the unauthorised change of use to a dwelling house has been occurring for four years.
  • Any other breach of planning control (most commonly unauthorised change of use or breach of condition) – This will apply to breaches of planning conditions such as Agricultural Occupancy Conditions, as well as change of use, such as the use of a farm building for storage or industrial. The breach of condition or change of use must have been occurring for a continuous 10 year period and be occurring at the time that the application is submitted.

After the specified time limits the breach of planning control becomes immune from enforcement action. It also then becomes lawful and a Certificate of Lawful Existing Development / Use also referred to as a CLEUD may be obtained.

So why did Mr Fidler’s case fail?

Immunity from enforcement action in the case of new dwellings only occurs four years after the dwelling has been substantially completed. In Mr Fidler’s case it was considered that the action of removing the straw bales formed part of the overall “building operations”.  Therefore the building was not “substantially completed” until they were removed. The four years only started to run once the bales were removed.   Removing the bales drew attention to the house and the Local Planning Authority were quick to serve enforcement action.

So what can we learn from the Fidler case?

  • That establishing the start date of the breach can be confusing and failure to determine it correctly can be costly.
  • That thwarting the Local Planning Office is never a good idea!
  • And that getting expert advice from a Planning Consultant is key to a successful outcome.

Carver Knowles have many years of experience in regularising breaches of planning permission and can help you determine whether a breach of planning permission is now immune from enforcement action. So if you have been served enforcement action, have action pending or would just like advice on a breach of planning permission please contact Julie Branfield on 01684 853400.