Four-Year (& Ten-Year) Rule Explained

February 3, 2023

Room being renovated

We’ve all heard the phrase that it’s “better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” But did you know people also apply this to planning permission?

This is why your Local Planning Authority (LPA) regularly monitors planning breaches and will enforce the necessary action if they find any.

And this is when the four-year and ten-year rules come into play. These rules cover any breach of building or operations development which has not been challenged by enforcement action for a period of at least four years or ten years.

Still have questions? We don’t blame you. So, join us as we explain what the four-year and ten-year rules are, and what happens should you receive an Enforcement Notice from your LPA.

What is the Four-Year Rule?

Essentially, the four-year rule is the amount of time that your local planning authority has to take action if they have found you have carried out works without planning permission or an unauthorised change of use to a single dwelling house (Use Class C3).

If you carry out development without permission or fail to comply with specific conditions, your local planning authority can either:

a) Take no action
b) Approve a retrospective application
c) Issue an Enforcement Notice

An example of the four-year rule is this: imagine you’ve built an extension on your home without obtaining any planning permission. Within four years of the completion date, your local planning authority will send you an Enforcement Notice to either apply for planning permission or knock it down.

Certificate of Lawfulness

Legally speaking, you’re not in the clear once the four-year period is over. To make sure your property is in line with local council regulations, you will need to apply for a Certificate of Lawfulness (not to be confused with a Building Regulation Completion Certificate). This is a legal document that retrospectively grants permission for the unauthorised development or use of your property and authorises that this may be continued.

To get a Certificate of Lawfulness, you will need to prove one of the following:

• Four years have passed since the completion of your development.
• Your property has been in the exact same use throughout the past four years.

What about the Ten-Year Rule?

The ten-year rule is the more standardised version of the four-year rule. It covers any breach of use of land or buildings (excluding Use Class C3) which has not been challenged by enforcement action for a period of at least ten years.

Like the four-year rule, it also applies to any breaches of existing planning conditions which have not been challenged by enforcement action for a period of at least ten years.

The only time that this changes to the four-year rule is when the property falls under Use Class C3 (a dwelling house). For example, if a house has been converted into a block of flats, they would need to be in continuous use for four years instead of ten.

If you’re not sure whether your planning contravention falls under the 4-year or 10-year rule, then you will need to apply for a Certificate of Lawfulness from your Local Planning Authority. You can apply for this legal document as long as the building or land adheres to the following criteria:

• Has been used continuously for more than 10 years
• Hasn’t been planning compliant in those 10 years
• Relevant building work was finished at least 4 years ago

It’s worth mentioning that these time limits do not prevent enforcement in all cases. This is especially true if you have deliberately concealed the development or change of use in question.

Further information can be found in section 171B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

What is an Enforcement Notice?

An Enforcement Notice is a notice served by your local planning authority if they believe a building development is in breach of planning control. In most cases, this will be because of an unauthorised material change of use, operational development or breach of a condition.

As legal documents, they have the power to demand that the unauthorised development be demolished or for the unauthorised use to cease.

The notice must set out the following information:

• The specific breaches
• How they should be addressed
• To what extent
• Within what timeframe

What Happens if You Get an Enforcement Notice?

If you receive an Enforcement Notice, you can either comply with it or appeal against it. Failure to do either can be fairly significant as it constitutes a criminal offence, and you will most likely be fined for not complying.

The Enforcement Notice will only take effect once any appeal has been finally determined. This is why legal experts will usually recommend appealing as soon as possible as it will give you more time to prepare.

Grounds of Appeal

If you’d like to appeal your Enforcement Notice, you can do so on the following grounds:

• Ground A – States that planning permission ought to be granted or the condition or limitation concerned ought to be discharged.
• Ground B – States that the breach never occurred.
• Ground C - Counters that the specified breach does not constitute a breach of planning control.
• Ground D - States that at the date of the notice being used, no enforcement action could be taken.
• Ground E – States that copies of the Enforcement Notice were not served in accordance with the relevant statutory requirements.
• Ground F – States that requirements are too strict.
• Ground G – States more time is needed.

Although, it should be said that parties who pursue an appeal unreasonably without sound grounds for appeal may have an award of costs made against them.

Four-Year Rule Being Phased Out?

As part of the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill – which involves a lot of planning reform - proposals include scrapping the four-year enforcement rule and increasing liability for non-compliance.

The bill is currently sitting at the report stage in the House of Commons. If it does succeed, then these changes will be implemented by at least 2024.

Why are they phasing the four-year rule out? Well, it seems that the government is making an effort to streamline these processes as well as improve deterrence for non-compliance.

Speak to an Architect

At Vita Architecture, we strongly advise against forgoing planning permission as we are firm believers in being safe rather than sorry. Building developments can be stressful enough as is, so it really doesn’t make sense to add to it.

Bear in mind that what we’ve discussed above is a high-level outline of what can be a very complex subject. In order to understand your project and its specifics, it’s always worth having a chat in person to better understand your situation.

If you have any questions about planning permission, feel free to give us a shout at either [email protected] or 0208 1441737.