Thursday, 20 March 2014

Subdividing a planning unit

Ben Wharfe recently raised a query with me as a comment on an early post I wrote on “curtilage confusion”. I thought that rather than shunting this, together with my reply, into the comments section of that post, it would justify a wider airing in the main part of the blog.

Ben drew my attention to the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Wakelin v. SSE 1978 JPL 769. His query actually related to the subdivision of a single dwellinghouse, but I don’t think that Wakelin is directly in point here, as the position is clearly governed now by section 55(3)(a) of the 1990 Act, which specifically declares that the use as two or more separate dwellinghouses of any building previously used as a single dwellinghouse involves a material change of use of the building and of each part which is so used.. As the later decision of the Court of Appeal in Arun established, it is the 4-year rule that applies here, even if the breach of planning control is in fact and a breach of condition. To that extent, Wakelin has been superseded, because that case involved just such a breach of condition, and this point was lightly dismissed as a consideration by Lord Denning.

Thus section 55(2)(f) has no application so far as the subdivision of a house is concerned, because the position is entirely governed by section 55(3)(a). However, there is a slight doubt as to the precise effect of section 55(2)(f) in other cases. On one reading of the wording of this sub-paragraph, it may not necessarily apply to subdivision of a planning unit as such, although it certainly covers any change of use within the same use class. So for example, change of use from a butcher’s shop to use as a post office (both within Use Class A1) is not to be taken for the purposes of the Act to involve development of the land. But subdivision or amalgamation of planning units may nonetheless amount to a material change of use if it has the effect of changing the character of the use. The Court of Appeal’s judgment in Wakelin is one example, and the more recent High Court judgment in Richmond upon Thames LBC v SSETR [2001] J.P.L. 84 (involving the amalgamation of seven dwellings so as to re-convert the building to use as a single dwelling) is another example, where the change in the size of the planning unit was held to affect the character of the use in planning terms (in a broad sense, not confined to its possible environmental effects) and was thus a material change of use amounting to development, notwithstanding the fact that the earlier and later uses were all within one and the same use class.

This may come as a surprise to many people, as there seems to be a general assumption that section 55(2)(f) covers subdivision of a planning unit, so long as the use of all of the new planning units created by this subdivision remains within one and the same use class. Richmond clearly established that this is not necessarily so with regard to the amalgamation of two or more planning units, but it seems that the same could equally apply to the sub-division of a planning unit. A material change of use does not necessarily occur upon the sub-division of a planning unit, but if this changes the character of the use (in planning terms) then this may amount to a material change of use, notwithstanding section 55(2)(f). It is quite frankly a ‘grey’ area, and I suppose that, as in so many other cases, it will be ‘a matter of fact and degree’, dependent of the precise circumstances of each such change to the planning unit.



  1. Do I recall correctly that the Richmond case swung on the point that the LPA had a policy objecting to the amalgamation of smaller dwellings to larger, introducing the novel idea that development plan policy can have a bearing on S55 interpretations?

  2. The Richmond case was concerned with the conversion of a property from seven flats into a single  dwellinghouse, and it established that a judgement has to be made as to whether the amalgamation of the planning units has ‘as a matter of fact and degree’ resulted in such a change in the character and impact of the use as to constitute a material change of use in planning terms. Richmond involved the loss of no fewer than six separate residential units, and it was held that the inspector had been wrong to ignore this point in considering the material character and impact of the resulting change of use.

    I do not recall off-hand whether there was a specific local policy on the point, but it was clearly the issue on which the council challenged the appeal decision. The court felt that considerations of this sort were material in determining whether the amalagamation of a number of planning units would change the character and impact of the residential (C3) use in planning terms - i.e. it was not just the physical environmental impact that was relevant. The Court of Appeal made a very similar point in Wakelin (in relation to the subdivision of a planning unit).