The end of the four-year rule?

The end of the four-year rule?

Regular readers of our articles will be familiar with the different time limits that apply after which development or a change of use that has been carried out without planning consent becomes immune from enforcement. There are some exceptions but the general rule is that building works become immune from enforcement after four years and changes of use become immune from enforcement after ten. There is currently a separate rule where there has been a breach of planning control consisting of the change of use of any building to use as a single dwellinghouse, where the four-year rule applies.

It is surprising that very little publicity has been given to Clause 101 of the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, which is currently in its report stage. As currently drafted, Clause 101 will remove the four-year rule altogether and replace it with the ten-year rule across the board. The reason given for the proposed change is to strengthen the enforcement powers of local authorities and to close loopholes and reinforce the principle that unauthorised development should never be viewed as preferential to proper, up-front planning engagement.

We regularly act for clients where, for whatever reason, there has been a breach of planning control and where either the four-year rule or the ten-year rule apply. We know from experience that, in the case of the change of use of any building to use as a single dwellinghouse, there are often good reasons why our clients have put themselves in breach of planning controls, not least to provide a home for themselves and their families when they would not otherwise be able to do so. In those cases, four years is a very long time to live with the possibility that they will be subject to enforcement action that could result in them being homeless. It is for that reason that we have written today to the joint chairs of the committee responsible for considering the Bill to call for the time limit after which the change of use of any building to use as a single dwellinghouse becomes immune from enforcement to remain at four years.

There is merit in having a single time period for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to identify and take action against breaches of planning control where it is proportionate and expedient for them to do so.  That can be supported on the grounds of simplification. However, alongside the specific points made in our letter, there is a general point which is that most people would regard it as in the public interest for action to be taken against breaches planning control that are causing genuine harms as quickly and efficiently as possible. Harmonising the time period at ten years is likely to act as a perverse incentive for LPAs to do the opposite. The way to address that is for the harmonised time period to be set at four years across the board and not at ten.

Although the Bill has already been examined in committee, the report stage gives MPs an opportunity, on the floor of the House, to consider further amendments. If any readers of this column wish to express a view or raise any issues, they should do so via their local Member of Parliament who, if in doubt, can be found here.

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