Live/Work, Repeat

Do you get that blurry feeling too?

I could have been dictating this piece for the overnight typing pool, slipping into the firm’s library to check the case references and tricky spellings, being brought printouts of drafts by a messenger in a firm-logo-branded shirt before the desktop publishing department do their weird stuff on The Firm’s Only Apple Mac.

Those were the days, working in a law factory, as we used dismissively to call our daytime workplace over an overpriced drink in a city bar after hours, incommunicado until the next morning.

Or I could be writing it at home in an hour or two of self-discipline away from an overnight stream of emails and an intertwined social media timeline of planning, law, politics, music, football and hopefully an amusing cat video or ten.

I don’t even know whether writing this blog is work or not.

We’re all grappling more than ever before with questions such as:

⁃ Where are the boundaries between work and home?

⁃ What is the continuing role for formal workspaces when the necessary components for core “office” work are simply a laptop, mobile phone and quiet space; for lockup shops when everyone can be their own etsy or e-bay business, or for studios and workshops where the work carried out may largely rely on nothing more than manual dexterity plus some tech?

⁃ In an age where the average household is having multiple home deliveries of all sorts of goods, what level of business activity is to be regarded as normal or appropriate for a residential area? Can you even generalise – or does it depend on the nature of the area and its dwellings?

⁃ Is this all a Good thing or a Bad thing and to what extent is it any business of the planning system? If it was the industrial revolution that brought about such a sharp delineation between where we live and where we work, are we now in a post-industrial revolution and are there indeed environmental, social and economic benefits to a greater degree of community, as opposed to commuter, living? How to reinvent the office so that it is about unique human communication, rather than as a left behind place, its complex physical functions, systems and gadgets long outsourced to laptop and phone?

Two recent cases led to these thoughts. The main one was Sage v Secretary of State (Sir Duncan Ouseley, 28 October 2021) (I know, one planning law Sage case was confusing enough and here comes another). I very much recommend and won’t repeat our Town Library case summary written by my colleague Stephanie Bruce-Smith (work-related plug: you can still subscribe for free to these brilliant weekly summaries by the Town Legal team of all Planning Court and relevant appellate judgments here).

Sir Duncan Ouseley in his ruling considers whether the advice in the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance is correct as to when planning permission is needed “to homework or run a business from home”. The guidance says this:

Planning permission will not normally be required to home work or run a business from home, provided that a dwelling house remains a private residence first and business second (or in planning terms, provided that a business use does not result in a material change of use of a property so that it is no longer a single dwelling house). A local planning authority is responsible for deciding whether planning permission is required and will determine this on the basis of individual facts. Issues which they may consider include whether home working or a business leads to noticeable increases in traffic, disturbance to neighbours, abnormal noise or smells or the need for any major structural changes or major renovations.”

Sound sensible to you? Then be wary, because the judge disagreed. He considered that the passage in brackets at the end of the first sentence is expressed too widely and also that the question of environmental impact (the matters referred to in the second sentence) is of limited relevance.

The facts as summarised by the judge were as follows:

Mr Sage, lives in a two-storey semi-detached house with a garden, about 20 metres deep, in a residential street in a primarily residential area of Beckenham in the London Borough of Bromley. At the rear of his garden is a timber out-building, with windows, which is used in part as a garden shed, and in part as a gym. Mr Sage keeps gym equipment there including a treadmill, cross-trainer, weights, balls, bench, and punch bag. It has no toilet or showering facilities. The garden, and the shed, can be accessed via a passage to the side of the house, shared with the neighbouring property. Mr Sage uses the gym himself and he permits family and friends to use it. He has used the gym part of the shed since 2016 for his business as a personal trainer, for paying clients, who attend at the premises.”

Bromley had refused Mr Sage’s application for a certificate of lawful use, disagreeing that either the use was ancillary to the primary residential use of his property or that that the use fell within section 55 (2)(d) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990: “the use of any buildings or other land within the curtilage of a dwellinghouse for any purpose incidental to the enjoyment of the dwellinghouse as such;…

(In passing, it’s not just about working from home, be careful about your hobbies: “Wallington v Secretary of State for Wales (1991) 62 P&CR 150, CA, concerned an enforcement notice alleging that the keeping of 44 dogs as a hobby was not incidental to the use of a dwelling house “as such”, that is as a dwellinghouse. The notice was upheld and the dogs limited to 6. The fact that the owner genuinely regarded this as a hobby “cannot possibly suffice to prove by itself” that the purpose was incidental to the enjoyment of the dwelling house as a dwellinghouse. Significance had to be given to the words “as such”.”)

An inspector dismissed Mr Sage’s appeal and he challenged that decision.

“This latter Guidance suffers from two main problems. The first question is what use is being made of the land, including its ancillary uses, and, in the case of a dwelling house, whether any purposes to which it is put are reasonably incidental to its use as a dwelling house. The passage in brackets at the end of the first sentence of this guidance is correct but too readily capable of leading to the concept, of a material change of use or a purpose incidental to the use of dwellinghouse as such, being misunderstood. This is because a business use in a dwellinghouse may well be secondary to the primary residential use of the dwellinghouse; but may still create a material change of use, be for a non-incidental purpose. A secondary use will involve a material change of use of the dwellinghouse to a mixed or composite use, as was found to have occurred here, unless it is so secondary that it is merely ancillary to the residential use as a dwelling house such that there is still just that one use; or in the case of a dwelling house, the purpose at issue is reasonably incidental to the enjoyment of the dwelling house as such. This is a crucial point which the Guidance ignores or blurs badly.

Second, a material change of use can be made without any adverse environmental impact at all. Treating environmental impact as the seemingly crucial issue for the judgment as to whether a material change of use has occurred, or a purpose is reasonably incidental is not consistent with clearly established law. The crucial test is whether there has been change in the character of the use. Environmental impact can be relevant as evidence that a material change has occurred, because a use of the new character may be capable of yielding environmental impacts or have done so already. The Guidance as written is apt to mislead as to what the real question is, and as to the true but limited relevance of environmental impact.

Once the use of the outbuilding for the business of a personal training studio for paying visitors is accepted as an ancillary to or reasonably incidental to the use of a dwellinghouse as such, the difficulty of measuring the materiality of a change in the scale of the activities or their mode of operation points to the limitations of using environmental impact as the measures not of impact but of materiality of the change of use. It appears quite difficult to contend that using the garden for exercise, warming up and warming down, post-exercise conversation, refreshment, or using the outbuilding with the doors open in hotter weather or if the air-conditioning is inadequate, or enabling visitors to traipse to the lavatory and back, involves a material change of use, when use of the outbuilding for 6 days a week for personal training did not. This is the more so if others, who are not commercial clients, do so. It is difficult to see that an increase in numbers and disturbance would be of itself a material change of use. The neighbours might change; a new owner of the house could intensify the use. There could be, as here, a local difference of view about the effect of the business. This all is grist to the mill of the limitations of the role of environmental impact in resolving the materiality of a change in use and the incidental nature of the additional use. The Guidance is far too loose to reflect the true focus of the question at issue.”

There is then this final fascinating passage:

I also appreciate that there are many forms of service offered within a dwelling house, from private tuition, including in music or singing, child minding, medical services. I accept that what is normal or reasonably incidental now may have shifted with changes in work habits as a result of Covid. This is not relevant to this particular case. And an important distinction would have to be drawn between working from home, where work-related visitors were few and far between, and working from home which took the form of routine and frequent work-related visitors, notably customers. However, the question of how much actual noise the music or maths teacher and pupil make, how much actual disturbance is generated by young children or dogs being minded, is not the touchstone of the materiality of the change of use, although it may point to a nature or degree of use which is materially different from that of a dwellinghouse or its incidental purposes. One is a residential use, and the other is a residential and commercial use. Of course, they both may vary in their intensity and impact, but one cannot be controlled through the need for planning permission and the other can and should be.

How is this distinction really to be drawn, clearly, in practice?

The second case is a judgment of the Central London County Court. AHGR Ltd v Kane Laverack (HHJ Johns QC, 27 September 2021). The judgment is unreported but summarised in County Court at Central London considers Live/Work units (Landmark chambers, 27 October 2021). Nostalgia time for some of us – “live/work units” are now a rather outmoded concept but were once given favourable policy status by certain London authorities in specific areas.

In leafing through books in the library (ok, by googling) I came across this excellent 2005 report by Andrew Lainton prepared for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Does Live/work? Problems and Issues concerning Live/Work Development in London:

“ The concept took off in London during the late 1990s. The concept was initially welcomed by many planning officers as they saw it meeting multiple employment and housing objectives. Initially proposals were by individual and artists, however developers soon became involved as it became seen as a means of securing planning permission in areas where existing zonings made development difficult.

There was a gradual disillusionment with the concept and many planners began to see the concept as a ‘fig leaf’ for primarily housing schemes. Policies in most boroughs have significantly tightened.

Some developers are quite open that Live/Work is simply a ruse for securing planning permission. There is widespread evidence of large scale residential reversion and little evidence of continued employment occupancy, other than in areas where there is a strong market for small offices where units are more likely to revert to employment use. The search for examples of good ‘work/ live’ practice has proven a largely barren one.”

AHGR was a landlord and tenant case which concerned the proper interpretation of a user clause in a lease required use “as a live/work unit in accordance with the terms and conditions of the planning permission”.

Excitingly for us lawyers, but leading to a rather curious outcome, it revolved around the interpretation of “/“: does “live/work” means “live and work” or “live and/or work”? A salutary lesson for users of the dreaded slash…

To quote from the summary:

The live/work unit had been built out as a flat, without apparent regard to the requirements set out in building regulations for commercial premises at the time. The user clause required use “as a live/work unit in accordance with the terms and conditions of the planning permission”. The Defendants (a barrister and doctor) had resided in the live/work unit primarily as their home, albeit that they had undertaken various work-related activities in their open-plan living space and spare room, such as writing books, publishing papers, and undertaking triaging and consultation of patients by phone. There was no designated work space in the unit and despite inspections over the years, no objections had been raised by the landlord’s agents to such use.”

After a 4 day trial, HHJ Johns QC dismissed the claim. He concluded the planning permission meant “live and/or work”. The construction of the planning permission was central to the construction of the leasehold covenant and particular regard was had to: (i) the planning policy background to the permission, (ii) the absence of conditions, (iii) the fact that the plans marked the whole area as live/work, (iv) the fact that other plans referred to in the permission used a “/” to indicate “and/or”, (v) the planning framework (including the fact that a breach of planning control can have criminal sanctions) (vi) the fact that a “live and/or work” construction still serves a purpose of allowing a business to be run from the premises; and (vii) how the planning permission had been implemented. A 1999 Supplementary Planning Guidance document, which was relied on by the Claimant, did not alter that interpretation.

The Judge also held that if the clause had mandated work, the planning permission did not require running a business from the unit and the activities undertaken by the Defendants were sufficient.”

Given that the whole purpose of “live/work units” was to require an element of employment use, rather than just use for residential purposes the judgment does not sit well with any purposive approach to interpretation of the documents but life, and the nature of work, has certainly moved on.

I wrote a long time ago about the many definitional problems within the Use Classes Order C-classes, in my 1 July 2016 blog post Time To Review The “C” Use Classes? Those problems are multiplying. What new boundary lines do we need, if any?

Simon Ricketts, 6 November 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Our clubhouse session this Tuesday at 6pm will be another good one: CIL horror stories. Story tellers will include Tom Dobson, Zenab Hearn, Claire Petricca-Riding, Professor Samer Bagaeen and Graham Cridland. Link here.

Simonicity Towers

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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