After a property has been used in contravention of planning law for ten years, the owner can apply for a certificate of lawful use to legitimise the new use. (If the breach of planning law relates to an unauthorised structure or an unauthorised use as a dwelling, this can be done after four years).

Recently, the owner of a cottage in the Chilterns did just that, applying for a certificate in regard to the removal of an agricultural occupancy condition, which is a condition which, in rather simplistic terms, requires the property to be occupied by someone who is engaged in agriculture. Removal of an agricultural use condition adds greatly to the value of a rural property, as it can then be sold to people other than agricultural workers – for example, commuters or those looking for a second home.

The property owner probably thought there would be no problem with the application. However, for such an application to be successful, the applicant must show that there has been ten years’ continuous use up to the date of the application. On the date of the application, the cottage was not occupied. Since there was no breach of the planning condition when it was unoccupied, the certificate of lawful use could not be granted: there had not been ‘continuous use’ in breach of the planning regulations for the requisite period.

This case shows how important it is to understand the conditions applicable to planning law and to abide by them.