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Insights // 21 August 2023

The Murfitt Principle: 4 Year Rule or 10 Year Rule and the Recent Case of Caldwell

Karen Jones and Emily Boorman, in our Planning & Environmental Law team, explain.

Local Planning Authorities have the power to issue an enforcement notice under Section 172 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (the “TCPA 1990”) in respect of a breach of planning control. The Enforcement Notice must comply with specific formalities. For example, it must state the steps required to rectify the breach of planning control.

An Enforcement Notice can be appealed on the basis that no enforcement action could be taken against the matter which the enforcement notice relates to. This refers to the “4 year rule” or the “10 year rule”.

Under Section 171B of the TCPA 1990, no enforcement action can be taken against building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land, or the change of use to a single dwellinghouse, after 4 years of the date of the breach (the “4 year rule”).

For any other breach (including changes of use), no enforcement action can be taken against the breach after 10 years of the date of the breach (the “10 year rule).

In the case of building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land where the 4 year rule would apply, there is significant case law which interprets the extent to which a Local Planning Authority can require the land to be restored to its state before the change of use occurred. This can, in limited circumstances, require restoration of the land including development where the 4 year rule would apply if this development was viewed on its own.

This principle, where immunity after 4 years does not apply, is often referred to as the Murfitt principle.

Murfitt v Secretary of State for the Environment (1980)

To summarise the facts of this case, Murfitt operated an agricultural plant hire and haulage business. Murfitt extended the farmyard area by approximately 15 yards, which was ‘hardcored’ (i.e. hard standing for the parking of vehicles) and placed a portable office and fuel tanks.

The Enforcement Notice required Murfitt to cease the use of the land for parking HGVs and restore the land to its condition before any development had taken place.

The change of use had not taken place 10 years ago. However, the hardstanding had been placed more than 4 years ago, and could be considered an operation which usually would be immune from enforcement action after the 4 year rule.

The Divisional Court held that the purpose of the hardcore was so integral to the change of use that leaving the hardstanding would leave the land “in a useless condition for any purpose”. In essence, accepting the Secretary of State’s submission that the hardstanding should not be considered separately from the change of use. So immunity for the parts of the development considered in isolation could not be claimed where it was carried out in order to facilitate the unlawful change of use, which in itself had not acquired immunity.

Refining the Murfitt Principle over time

This principle has been refined further by following cases.

The Murfitt principle must always be viewed in the context and circumstances of each case. In Somak Travel Ltd v Secretary of State for the Environment [1988], the test in Murfitt was essentially whether the operational activity was integral to or part and parcel of the change of use. If the operational activity was integral to the change of use, it should not be considered separately to the change of use, and therefore an Enforcement Notice relating to the change of use of the land could validly require an operational activity or internal works (which would not normally require planning permission) to be removed.

The Murfitt principle was confirmed in Kestrel Hydro v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2016].

Caldwell v Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities [2023]

However, the recent case of Caldwell, judgment dated 7 August 2023, has confirmed that there are limitations to the Murfitt principle.

In Kestrel Hydro, the works were considered secondary, ancillary or “associated with” the change of use. However, the Murfitt principle cannot override or extend the statutory scheme where the works are fundamental to the change of use. The facts in Caldwell can be distinguished from the previous caselaw in that sense.

Caldwell relates to the erection of a dwellinghouse, which was substantially completed in April 2014. An Enforcement Notice was served on 23 February 2021, requiring the residential use of the land to be ceased, and to demolish or dismantle the dwellinghouse. The judge found in Caldwell that the dwellinghouse itself was the source of, or fundamental to, the change of use.

Where the operations or development were fundamental to the change of use, the Murfitt principle cannot be used to defeat the purpose of the 4 year rule for the change of use to a residential dwelling.

The Inspector had therefore erred as a matter of law in not appreciating that there were limits to the Murfitt principle.

The Inspector’s decision was therefore quashed and has been referred back for redetermination.

Conclusions

It is important to view the Murfitt principle in context. The Murfitt principle is only applicable in circumstances where “it would make a nonsense of planning control…that an enforcement notice requiring discontinuance of the use of the site in question…should not also require the restoration of the land, as a physical matter, to its previous condition” (Stephen Brown J in Murfitt).

The Murfitt principle also cannot be abused by Local Authorities to attempt enforcement action where it is clear in the statute that the development should be immune from such enforcement.

In summary, the Murfitt principle only becomes relevant where the 4 year rule and the 10 year rule are played off against each other. The principle gives weight to the intention of the statute, and helps to navigate which rule (4 or 10 years) should prevail.

For further information or legal advice, please contact law@blandy.co.uk or call 0118 951 6800.

This article is intended for the use of clients and other interested parties. The information contained in it is believed to be correct at the date of publication, but it is necessarily of a brief and general nature and should not be relied upon as a substitute for specific professional advice.

Karen Jones

Karen Jones

Partner, Planning & Environmental Law

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Emily Boorman

Emily Boorman

Trainee Solicitor

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