After four years, a local authority can normally take no action in respect of building work carried out without planning permission or in relation to the use of any building as a single dwellinghouse. The rationale is that if something has escaped notice for a long time, it cannot really be causing harm.

Time runs from the time the work is “substantially complete”. “Substantially complete” is likely to be interpreted in favour of the council in the absence of independent evidence. In the case of First Secretary of State v Chelmsford BC (2003), the erection of two mobile homes was not completed until they had reached their final appearance, i.e. after the cladding was in place. This took place a considerable time after they were first erected, thus giving the council more time to take action.

Taking this case on board, Mr Fidler, a dealer in hay and straw who owned land in the green belt, decided to take advantage of the system. Knowing that he was unlikely to get planning permission for a new house on the site, he built the house within an outer casing of hay bales.

Having completed the house and lived in it for four years, he removed the bales believing he had outwitted the system. The council duly issued an enforcement notice alleging that the work was not substantially complete until the hay bales were removed. Mr Fidler duly appealed and in a decision letter this year, the inspector agreed with the council that although the hay bales had no structural use they were an integral part of the building operation and therefore the four years began to run, not from first occupation, but from the date the bales were removed! How long it will take the council to persuade Mr Fidler to knock down his castle remains to be seen!

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