Thursday, 25 April 2019
Holiday lets revisited
I don’t usually report on planning appeal decisions, but I did prick up my ears at a decision in Cambridge  which was issued on 4 March. This related to conjoined appeals against a series of enforcement notices which had alleged a change of use of 13 flats from Class C3 dwellinghouse to ‘short-term visitor accommodation’. Each flat was a separate planning unit, and so each of the enforcement notices related to an individual flat. There was no dispute that the lawful use of these flats had originally been as separate private dwellinghouses. The issue before the Inspector was whether the manner in which each of these flats was being used still fell within Use Class C3 or whether the manner in which they were now being used (i.e. to provide short-stay serviced accommodation) amounted to a material change of use in each case.
The flats had been typically let from 3-4 nights per week (as a minimum) up to approximately 10 nights. In some other cases, the flats were let for longer periods. However, the evidence showed that 77% of the lets were for one- and two-night stays. This evidence also indicated that there were over a thousand different bookings for the 13 flats over an 11-month period from March 2017 to January 2018, and that the 13 flats were occupied 80% of the time. Some of these flats had been used as short-stay serviced accommodation since November 2011, whilst others had been similarly let since July 2015. The staff or agents managing the lettings provided a basic ‘welcome pack’ with linen and towels changed on a weekly basis [which was the sole extent of the ‘servicing’ provided] and neither of the two apartment blocks in which these flats were situated had any communal facilities.
It was stressed on behalf of the appellants that the service provided in the flats was very limited and that it was not at the same service level provided for hotel guests or some other serviced apartments in Cambridge. The business was now ‘geared around corporate lets’ and it was the appellants’ intention to have less of a turnover of residents by progressively providing longer lengths of stay. The appellants referred to the differences between the apartments that were the subject of this appeal and other serviced apartments in Cambridge. In particular, they stressed that the serviced apartments (flats) that were the subject of this appeal were indistinguishable from the other ‘conventional’ flats, including other apartments in the same blocks that were the subject of Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreements. It was therefore contended that all these flats were clearly in Use Class C3. This was on the basis that a spectrum of uses, from Class C1, through a sui generis residential (hybrid) use, to one which is clearly in Class C3 use, all share indistinguishable characteristics as residential dwellings. So the appellants’ contention was that all of the flats the subject of these appeals had remained in Use Class C3 residential use, despite the short-term lettings.
The LPA, on the other hand, contended that, in each case, there had been a material change of use of the flat. The Council acknowledged that the apartments contained all of the facilities to enable a Class C3 use to occur. However, due to the typical rental periods, the frequencies of turn-over of the accommodation and the character of use, the Council contended that the use of the apartments did not fall within Class C3 use, as defined in the Use Classes Order. The Council relied on the judgment in Moore v. SSCLG  EWCA Civ 1202, on which I reported in this blog on 27 October 2012 (“ Holiday lets may be a change of use”). The Council referred to the court’s finding that ‘It was not correct to say either that using a dwelling for commercial holiday lettings would never amount to a material change of use or that it would always amount to a material change of use. Rather in each case, it would be a matter of fact and degree and would depend on the characteristics of the use as holiday accommodation’.. The Council considered that, as a matter of fact and degree, a material change of use of each of the apartments the subject of these appeals had taken place. They accepted that Class C3 dwelling houses can involve occasional changes in occupation, but they argued that there is a fundamental difference between, for example, a tenancy change and the high frequency of change in occupation that occurs with the ‘Airbnb’-type uses which had been carried out in the appeal premises.
The Council asserted that usage for short-term periods was likely to be by single individuals or couples and that the impacts of usage were both individual to each apartment block and cumulative, due to their location adjacent to each other. In considering the character of usage, the Council felt that this generated an increased likelihood of early and late arrivals; the uncertainties relating to location, uncertainties regarding access and parking; the need for specific instructions; the fact that the flats were not their homes; the fact that they are guests of the appellant company; the fact that the flats were servicing the tourism sector of the market as opposed to serving the residential market of Cambridge and that guests would not typically be invested in the local community.
Overall, the Council had concluded that the short-term letting use was somewhere between a C3 dwellinghouse and a C1 hotel use. As such, they argued, it was a sui generis use. The Council was also concerned about the transitory nature of the letting use and consequently that some visitors could demonstrate less respect and consideration for neighbours than might be the case for permanent residents. In support of this view the Council referred to reviews by some visitors which were evident from the booking website. Some of these included references to surrounding apartments being ‘incredibly noisy’; ‘noisy guests next door all night long’ and noise levels from other guests being ‘unbearable’. (On the other hand, none of the permanent residents in any of the neighbouring flats in either of the two apartment buildings had complained about any impact on their amenities.)
In assessing these appeals, the Inspector observed that the ‘Moore’ case had established the correct approach to be taken when considering whether or not a material change in use from a dwelling house (Use Class C3) to a holiday or commercial residential use (sui generis) has occurred. It was accepted by both parties that these appeals turned on whether or not, as a matter of fact and degree and based on the particular characteristics of the use of the apartments, a material change of use had occurred.
The Inspector in the ‘Moore’ case considered that there were a number of distinct differences between short term holiday accommodation and a Class C3 use. These included the pattern of arrivals and departures; any associated traffic movements; the likely frequency of party-type activities; the potential lack of consideration for neighbours and other factors which differed from a private family use of the property. Although the uses in the instant appeals could not be compared exactly with the situation in the ’Moore’ case, the Inspector considered that the potential for similar impacts on amenity were the same. The Inspector recited his various concerns in this regard.
In summary, therefore, it was the Inspector’s view that, as a matter of fact and degree, the variable nature of the transient uses of the properties had resulted in a distinctly different character of usage from that of a Class C3 use. He acknowledged that the services provided are not anywhere near a full hotel service. Nevertheless, the flats were let as separate suites of accommodation; they were let and advertised as a hotel might be and, most importantly had been let for many 1- or 2-night stays. On the basis of all of the submissions and his site visit, the Inspector concluded that the character of usage relating to all 13 appeal flats had become significantly materially different to the more permanent residential character of neighbouring flats which were subject to the Assured Shorthold Tenancy Agreements. These differences had amounted to a material change in use of each of the flats in question. It followed that in each case there had been a contravention of planning control and all the appeals were, therefore, dismissed on ground (c).
In commenting on this appeal decision, I should stress first that the Inspector was entitled to reach his own conclusions on issues of fact, and he clearly stated that his findings were made ‘as a matter of fact and degree’. The second point is that, as an appeal decision, this is not in any way legally binding, but it is nevertheless an interesting example of the way in which the relevant legal principles may be applied in practice in appeals of this nature.
This appeal raises a number of interesting points, which are not necessarily confined to holiday lets, but may apply to other alleged changes of use. The first point to be borne in mind is that, if a use remains fairly and squarely within one and the same Use Class, no amount of intensification of that use will amount to a material change of use (see, for example, Kensington & Chelsea RLBC v SSE  J.P.L. 50). A problem may arise, however, if the character of the use changes in such a way as to take it outside the scope of the Use Class within which it originally fell. Decided cases include examples of changes in the use which did not alter the character of the use to such an extent as to amount to a material change of use (e.g. R (Manning) v South Lakeland DC  EWHC 242 (Admin), and Herts CC v SSCLG EWCA Civ 1473) The classic case in which a change of use certainly had taken place was Wallington v SSW  1 P.L.R. 87, where the keeping of pets (which is usually a legitimate ancillary or incidental use of a single private dwellinghouse) had grown to such a degree, in that case keeping 39 dogs on the premises, as to change the character of the use in way that took it outside the scope of Use Class C3, and made it a mixed (sui generis) use as a dwelling and for the keeping of dogs. The Moore case, cited in this appeal decision, is an example of a holiday let being or becoming so different in character compared with an ordinary residential use within Use Class C3 as to amount to a change of use.
One further point, which was only touched on lightly by the LPA in presenting their case, and which does not seem to have been a factor in the Inspector’s decision here, is the possibility that a use (such as a holiday let) may, in principle, fall within the same Use Class as the pre-existing use, and yet have such an impact in planning terms as to give rise to a material change of use, even in the absence of any environmental impact as such. This possibility was first suggested by Lord Denning in Wakelin v SSE  J.P.L.769, but was most clearly demonstrated in the cases of Richmond-upon-Thames LBC v SSETR  J.P.L 84 and R (Kensington and Chelsea RLBC) v SSCLG  EWHC 1785 (Admin). Both of those cases were concerned with the loss of housing units (through the amalgamation of dwellings) in areas where there was high demand for housing, particularly in the form of smaller units. It strikes me that the use of flats and similar residential accommodation as holiday lets, if this were to amount to more than a purely temporary interruption in their normal residential use, might well give rise to precisely the same considerations. There is, of course, legislation on this in Greater London, but LPAs elsewhere, faced with a situation similar to this enforcement case in Cambridge, might well consider the applicability of the principle established in the Richmond and Kensington & Chelsea cases, if the use of flats for holiday letting has the effect of reducing the availability of housing units to meet high demand for housing in their area.
This suggests that the government should perhaps revisit the Use Classes Order, and possibly introduce a separate and carefully defined use class for holiday lettings, so that these could no longer be embraced within Use Class C3. In the meantime, however, further cases such as Moore and this latest enforcement case in Cambridge are likely from time to time to trouble the Planning Inspectorate, and possibly the courts.
© MARTIN H GOODALL