The converted shipping container home is rightfully undergoing a renaissance in the UK, as a sturdy, robust way to easily build affordable housing.

There have been quite a few successes since the first Container City in London, but nearly a decade before then, one of the first-ever shipping container homes was built to very little fanfare.

Three decades later, it caused such a controversy with the local planning council that the man who had lived there for most of his life was evicted and formally asked to leave in a story that had become so notorious that the council involved made a public statement explaining why.

What happened? Why was the man evicted after so long? And what can shipping container home builders learn from the entire fiasco?

The Newport Container Home

Two years before the publication of How Buildings Learn, one of the first notable examples of a shipping container conversion, Stephen Gibbons of St Brides, near Newport, Wales had a somewhat more tragic reason to build what became his dream home.

In 1990, the land had been bought from a neighbour by Mr Gibbons’ father for agricultural purposes, predominantly for cattle farming, but after a divorce in 1992 and having nowhere else to go, he stayed in the agricultural buildings at Lighthouse Farm.

Eventually, this became a line of shipping containers formerly used for storage attached to each other with windows and extensively converted into a lavish luxury living accommodation, with three living rooms, a bedroom and a bathroom.

He was very popular with neighbours, took care of shared parking spaces and took care of vulnerable people in the area, organising a relief group throughout 2020.

However, in 2021, he was shocked to receive an enforcement notice that the land was being used for unauthorised purposes without planning permission, claiming it was used for car repairs and as a residential dwelling, ordering the home removed and the land restored to its 1992 state.

What happened next is still the subject of controversy.

Beyond The Ten-Year Rule

When it comes to planning violations, two time limits matter when it comes to enforcement. Whilst it is always best to ask for permission over forgiveness, there is a point where the new development has been around long enough that it is essentially part of the land now.

These are often informally known as the four-year rule and the ten-year rule.

If a building’s use is materially changed, such as a building classified for retail or industrial use being converted into a house, enforcement action must take place within four years from the date of the breach in controls. Any other breach needs to be acted upon within ten years.

This means that Newport Council should not have been able to do anything about the home, but they have argued, with legal success if nothing else, that the home was a “concealed dwelling” and therefore had only become known to the planning authorities far later than this.

Given that his neighbours were more than aware and had plenty of time to lodge a complaint, this appears on the face of it to be a questionable justification, but regardless the enforcement action was put in place.

This is exceptionally disappointing, as this was a hidden piece of shipping container architectural history, as potentially the first-ever conversion was removed due to a dispute with the local planning authority, and it highlights the importance of ensuring any construction project meets business regulations.

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