Is C4 to 7 Person HMO a Material Change of Use?

Change of use from C4 to Sui Generis is a very common planning application that is submitted to the LPA’s in a big number.  Most of them getting rejected mainly on the basis of impact on the living conditions and amenities of the occupiers and neighbors. 

What is a C4 HMO ?

Use Class C4 covers small HMO’s being occupied by between 3 and 6 unrelated persons. The use class is predicated upon persons resident and not on the number of bedrooms within the building

What is a Sui Generis HMO? 

Sui Generis HMO is shared houses occupied by 7 or more unrelated individuals, as their only or main residence, who share basic amenities such as a kitchen or bathroom.

After reading the above two statements, what I have understood is conversion of a C4 property to Sui Generis wholly depends on the ”Number of Occupiers” of the property and not on the number of bedrooms or other amenities provided by the property. 

This raises a question: why does this require a planning permission? Is it considered material change of use? 

When the original guidance was brought out in 2010 the Government made clear that the change of use from a C4 to a Sui-Generis HMO was to be decided on a case by case basis and given the fact and degree of the change of use. The government went so far as suggesting that one or two additional persons within a C4 HMO may not actually result in a change of use requiring planning permission. 

The issue is somewhat more basic than this. At planning school we as planners are told one simple truth. 

“A change of use is where you move from one use class to another”

As a profession we are set up from the start (Day 3 to be precise) to see changes of use as binary. It either is or it isn’t because of use class. This is because the Use Classes Order itself is a wholly permissive document purportedly telling us what falls into each class so that we can judge whether a ‘Material Change of Use’ would happen. The problem is that there is no legal definition of a Material Change of Use other than the view of the decision maker based on a fact and degree judgment.  

In recent appeal cases the knotty problem of whether the addition of a person resulted in a material change of use has reached the annulled halls of the Planning Inspectorate and they are consistently ruling in one direction. 

No, it is not. 

Recent appeals have focused on the truth of the matter rather than a blind assessment of the Use Classes Order, much to the chagrin of the Planning Committee which was recently accused of having a shockingly low understanding of planning law and practice. 

Lets think about that truth for a minute. 

Development is judged on the ‘description of development’ in S55(1)(2) and (3) of the Act. 

We don’t need planning permission for the addition of bedrooms under S55(2) if these works are wholly internal. The use is predicated upon people and not bedrooms and so just adding rooms to an existing HMO does nothing. 

Then we move on to the harm in the public interest, i.e. the observable effect. 

Adding more people to an HMO well yes that adds more people. But when does that become noticeable? 

Would you honestly be able to tell if one more person moved into a family home? Most likely not! Whats the difference in one more person in terms of noise or car parking or amenity space needs or refuse? So why is an HMO so different from this reality. In the main HMO occupiers have less reliance on cars, they generate the same amount of refuse and potential noise and the alterations to create an HMO often improve the existing energy and noise abatement characteristics of the building. Yes there may be one more person living there but in terms of the effect itself this is negligible. 

In one of the recent planning appeals for three properties for change of use from C4 HMO to Sui Generis HMO the inspector concluded just that. The addition of 1 more occupant to the property would not require any external alterations nor indeed a material change of use that would require planning permission. After the site visit the inspector was also damming of the Council’s approach stating that the amount of communal living space was acceptable and meets the requirements of the National Space Standards. 

And this is a growing trend. 

We have been tracking similar appeals in England where Inspectors are correctly asking the question whether a 6 to 7 or 6 to 8 person HMO needs planning permission from the LPA as the works and the effect do not cross the threshold for development needing planning permission. 

I think it’s time to rethink the requirement of planning permission for a conversion for 6 bed C4 HMO to a 7 bed Sui Generis. When it is well understood the addition of 1 more occupant does not have any demonstrable impact on the living conditions, noise, parking or amenities. This in its own would free up a substantive amount of workload within an already crippled system and allow planning officers to assess real development in the public interest. 

By Shivam Sagwall