The Supreme Court moves to block legal loophole in the planning system as Government gives councils tough new powers.
It is not often that planning enforcement action hits the national headlines, but Mr Beesley has managed to attract more than his fair share of media interest over the last few months as the details of his cunning attempt to avoid the planning system have emerged.
Mr Beesley tried to take advantage of a provision of planning law that prevents a council from taking action against the change of use of any building to residential use without planning permission more than four years ago. Mr Beesley apparently wanted to build a house in the Hertfordshire Green Belt. Getting planning permission was never going to be easy (in fact it would have been virtually impossible) and so he applied instead for planning permission for an agricultural barn. He then built himself a substantial house within the barn and lived in it with his wife for four years - presumably in the dark.
After four years he then revealed the house within the barn and applied to Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council for a certificate confirming that the house was immune from enforcement action and so had become lawful because it had been used as a house for more than four years.
The Council were understandably upset about what Mr Beesley had done and refused to grant the certificate. There then followed an appeal to a planning inspector and further appeals to the High Court and the Court of Appeal. In the Court of Appeal, Mr Beesley won and it looked like his gamble was going to pay off. But the Council then appealed for one last time to the country’s top court, the Supreme Court who have now overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision and found firmly in the Council’s favour.
All seven of the Law Lords who heard the case rejected Mr Beesley’s argument saying that his conduct when applying for planning permission for the barn was nothing short of fraudulent. As such, their Lordships held that Mr Beesley could not be allowed to profit from his actions and so opened the door to the Council now being able to take enforcement action to have the house demolished.
The facts of the case were exceptional, but it sends a clear warning to anyone trying to avoid the planning system that the courts will try to draw a line at rewarding deliberate dishonesty. The decision will have an impact on a number of similar cases that are ongoing, including the high profile case of Mr Fidler, who built an enormous house, complete with a turret, within a huge haystack and then lived in it for four years with his family before removing the hay bales and revealing his handiwork to the world in general and the local council in particular.
While Mr Beesley’s story ends with the Supreme Court’s decision, the issue will not now rest. The conduct of Mr Beesley, Mr Fidler and others has attracted the attention of the Government who are in the process of introducing tough new enforcement powers as part of their wider programme of reforms to the planning system. The new ‘Planning Enforcement Orders’ will allow a local council to take enforcement action against any development carried out without planning permission even after the time limit has expired as long as they can satisfy the local Magistrates that the unlawful development was deliberately concealed from them.
The new powers won’t help councils where the unlawful development has been carried out openly and they just have not spotted it or have not done anything about it, but it will close-off what the Government and many councils see as a legal loophole that is being exploited by some to circumvent the planning system.
You have been warned!