Tuesday, 2 May 2017

House-painting not within the scope of section 215

It is an unbreakable law of the universe that whenever I go on holiday some interesting planning law issues suddenly pop up while I am away. The past fortnight has been no exception. Having got back to my desk, I am going to start with the latest episode in the Saga of the Stripey House. (I will look at one or two other new topics over the next week or two.)

As I have explained in previous blog posts on this bout of lengthy legal warfare, I have no intention of taking sides, but am interested in the legal issues that it throws up. If you refer back to the blog post I wrote on Monday 15 August 2016, you will see there my report on the issue that eventually came before the High Court last week, and prompted a fresh round of news stories, most of which entirely missed the point of these particular proceedings.

The LPA (Kensington & Chelsea – “RBKC”) had served a section 215 Notice on the owner of this property after the owner, Mrs Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring, had painted the whole of the road frontage of the house in vertical red and white stripes. The Council required it to be repainted plain white. This was appealed to the magistrates’ court under section 217, who upheld the notice. A further appeal from there to the Crown Court was dismissed by HH Judge Johnson on 12 July 2016. It was this decision that was the subject of last week’s further appeal to the High Court.- R (Lisle-Mainwaring) v. Isleworth Crown Court and RBKC [2017] EWHC 904 (Admin).

The appellant contended that section 215, which is normally used to require the tidying up of rubbish and detritus on unkempt open land, could not be used for this purpose. The amenity of an area would not normally be adversely affected by the external decoration of a building, but the Crown Court judge had been influenced by the fact that this was a house in a conservation area, and painting the house in red-and-white vertical stripes was, he said, unsightly. His honour had therefore held that the notice had been properly served under section 215 and should be upheld.

It was the appellant’s submission, both before the Crown Court and in the High Court, that a section 215 notice can be used only to require the repair of a property in disrepair which is adversely affecting the amenity of the area. She contended that amenity is adversely affected only in a case that raises issues of repair and maintenance. Therefore, she argued, mere painting of the building did not affect "the condition of land" within section 215.

HH Judge Johnson had been persuaded by the LPA that "amenity" is a broad concept, not defined by the section. He had therefore held that it is a question of judgement on the part of the LPA, taking a broad view of the condition of the site, the impact that this has on the surrounding area and also having regard to the scope of the council’s powers under section 215 (citing Berg v. Salford City Council [2013] EWHC 2599 (Admin)). The "condition of land", his honour had determined, refers to the current state of the land, and a section 215 notice could therefore be used to require works going beyond mere maintenance, so as to remedy the appearance of the land. Something that affects visual amenity, his honour held, is enough to justify issuing a section 215 notice.

The Crown Court appears to have been influenced by the fact that the subject property is in a conservation area. Painting the outside of a building would not in the ordinary way adversely affect amenity. However, his honour had observed that one of the key features of the conservation area in which the subject property was situated was its visual integrity, with only a limited range of neutral colours on painted buildings. Painting the property in garish stripes, he had held, was disruptive of the townscape and harmed the uniformity of buildings within the conservation area, adversely affecting amenity. The painting was unsightly and, in his honour’s judgment, section 215 supplied an appropriate means of tackling the unsightly condition of land or buildings.

Notwithstanding these findings, Gilbart J allowed Mrs Lisle-Mainwaring’s appeal in the High Court last week.

At the heart of this case is the issue of statutory interpretation. Gilbart J took as his starting point the words of Lord Scarman in Pioneer Aggregates,when he said:

“ ............If the statute law covers the situation, it will be an impermissible exercise of the judicial function to go beyond the statutory provision by applying such principles merely because they may appear to achieve a fairer solution to the problem being considered. As ever in the field of statute law it is the duty of the courts to give effect to the intention of Parliament as evinced by the statute, or statutory code, considered as a whole.

Gilbart J pointed out that the interpretation of Section 215 is not referable to, or affected by, the fact that a building in issue falls within a Conservation Area. On the other hand, the nature of the surrounding area may be relevant to its application, as consideration of the effects of amenity inevitably involves considering the effect of the condition of the land on its surroundings (bearing in mind that land includes a building - see s 336(1) of the 1990 Act). In that context, in Gilbart J’s judgment it is impermissible for a Magistrates’ or Crown Court sitting on an appeal to take account of the terms of planning policies or of the reason for the designation of a Conservation Area. A Magistrates’ Court or a Crown Court is not the appropriate forum to consider and determine the interpretation or application of planning policies. Had such planning merits been relevant, one would have expected the appellate route in the legislation to have been to the Secretary of State or his Inspectors, as it is in the case of refusal of planning permission. The concern of the Magistrates’ Court or of the Crown Court is to look solely at the facts.

Turning to section 215 itself, Gilbart J pointed out that the origins of this section go right back to the 1947 Act, when this provision was limited to cases where the amenity of the Council’s area, or of an adjoining area, was seriously injured by the condition of any garden, vacant site, or other open land in their area. The definition is now more broadly drawn, but is still limited to cases where the condition of the land (or building) adversely affects the character of the area.

What is meant by “condition of the land?” In his lordship’s judgment, one must be careful to avoid a catch-all definition that exceeds the proper bounds of the power. The purpose of section 215 is to deal with land or buildings whose condition, in the usual sense of that word, is such as to cause an adverse effect on amenity. The section is not designed to deal with questions of aesthetics or taste, nor to exercise a control over development which affects the choice of exterior finish. His lordship did not read the judgment in Berg v Salford City Council (relied on in the Crown Court) as supporting the argument that a local planning authority has the right to use section 215 to deal with a choice of finish which it dislikes.

One issue that has arisen in a number of cases of statutory interpretation is the relevance (or otherwise) of the heading or side note on the statute. (In the case of section 215, the heading to Chapter II of this Part of the Act reads: “Land adversely affecting amenity of neighbourhood”, and the heading to section 215 itself reads: “Power to require proper maintenance of land”.) The House of Lords has issued definitive guidance on the use of such material in R v Montila [2004] UKHL 50. In the words of Lord Hope of Craighead:

The question then is whether headings and sidenotes, although unamendable, can be considered in construing a provision in an Act of Parliament. Account must, of course, be taken of the fact that these components were included in the Bill not for debate but for ease of reference. This indicates that less weight can be attached to them than to the parts of the Act that are open for consideration and debate in Parliament. But it is another matter to be required by a rule of law to disregard them altogether. One cannot ignore the fact that the headings and sidenotes are included on the face of the Bill throughout its passage through the legislature. They are there for guidance. They provide the context for an examination of those parts of the Bill that are open for debate. Subject, of course, to the fact that they are unamendable, they ought to be open to consideration as part of the enactment when it reaches the statute book. .............

The headings and sidenotes are as much part of the contextual scene as these materials, and there is no logical reason why they should be treated differently. That the law has moved in this direction should occasion no surprise. .......... The starting point is that language in all legal texts conveys meaning according to the circumstances in which it was used.

Gilbart J therefore considered the heading to section 215 in this context. It could not be doubted that “proper maintenance of land” is directed to the maintenance of the land, or in the case of a building, of its fabric. In his judgment, given that assistance, it was hard to see how one could criticise a building owner for a want of maintenance on the basis that s/he had chosen a colour scheme which was thought unattractive.

What affected the amenity of the area in this case, and was found to do so by the Crown Court, was the choice of colour scheme. This was, and was only, a matter of aesthetics. Parliament had not sought to prevent landowners, including those in Conservation Areas, from painting their houses in any colour or colours they wish (save where an Article 4 direction has been made).

In Gilbart J’s judgement, to allow an LPA to use section 215 to deal with questions of aesthetics, as opposed to disrepair or dilapidation would fall outside the intention and spirit of the Planning Code. An LPA has the power to limit permitted development rights or to discontinue lawful uses, but not without payment of compensation. Here, RBKC had ample steps available to it under the Planning Code which would have protected amenity, and would have exposed it to minimal cost. Under section 102 it could have issued a notice requiring the repainting of the building. Were such a notice upheld, the level of compensation would be the diminution of the interest in the land (section 115 of the 1990 Act). On the basis of RBKC’s own case, that diminution in value must have been effectively Nil. There would at worst be a claim for the cost of the repainting (section 115(3)).

Gilbart J was therefore of the view that it is an improper use of section 215 to use it to alter a lawful painting scheme, when there is no suggestion that there is any want of maintenance or repair in the land. It followed that the Notice and the decision of the Crown Court had to be quashed.


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