Can a local authority lawfully exercise emergency powers to demolish a dangerously derelict building in a conservation area without first obtaining planning permission? The High Court considered that issue in a case which clarified the law.
A local authority decided to exercise its powers under Section 78 of the Building Act 1984 to demolish a decaying chapel and schoolhouse it owned which was located in a conservation area. Structural reports indicated that the building was at real risk of collapse. The council said that the structure posed a serious risk to the public and that demolition works could not be delayed.
Challenging the decision, a neighbouring landowner asserted that demolition of the building without planning permission would amount to a criminal offence. It argued that the building made a positive contribution to the conservation area and that steps short of demolition could be taken to render it structurally safe.
In finding that the council had lawfully invoked its powers under Section 78, the Court noted that the building had already started to collapse and had been assessed as posing a danger to pedestrians and adjoining properties. On the central legal issue in the case, however, the Court concluded that the exercise of Section 78 powers does not abrogate, or do away with, the need for planning permission. The landowner was granted a formal declaration to that effect.
Despite the council’s argument that such a declaration would lead to delays in urgent action being taken to deal with dangerous structures, the Court found that the requirement for planning permission was in line with Parliament’s intention and very far from being absurd or unreasonable.
Like any other landowner, it would be open to the council to seek to regularise the position by seeking planning permission after the event. If prosecuted, the council could deploy the statutory defence that demolition was the minimum measure required and urgently necessary in the interests of safety or health. The very existence of that defence made it unlikely that a prosecution would even be brought.