The role of the French maire
PUBLISHED: 15:40 22 April 2015
If you want to make changes to your property in France you'll need to notify the maire. Sean O'Connor explains the role of this VIP when it comes to planning permission
The mairie (town hall) is where monsieur le maire reigns supreme. Elected locally, he wields the power of the state within his territory, largely taking his orders from the préfet of the department, monsieur le préfet, an unelected officer sent down from Paris.
Almost every village in France has a mairie, and its importance in French life can scarcely be exaggerated. If you want to get married in France you must get married in the mairie, nowhere else. Yes you can get married in a church but your church wedding is not legally valid in France. And if you want to put up a fence around your property, you must declare it to the mairie. Let us take a closer look at planning matters in France.
Any change to the external appearance of your property will, at the very least, require a declaration to the mairie. New window? New declaration. Within one week, the mairie will post up a notice in its premises declaring the date – usually one month forward from then – within which the works can take place, assuming there’s no opposition.
If within the month the mairie opposes it, it must do so on legal planning grounds, not simply because the maire does not like it. France is very much a law-covered, rule-bound sort of place.
If you want to make more significant external changes, such as building a new extension or garage, you must obtain a building permit. Normally, depending on certain minimum limits, you must submit plans drawn up by an architect. Your dossier will be examined by the local planning office for the geographical department, called La Direction Départementale du Territoire or DDT for short. If your application is approved, the permission will be issued by, guess who, monsieur le maire.
You also need a declaration for a change of use. Let us suppose that this barn of yours already has doors and windows. Without making any external changes, you posh it up a bit and inside you convert it into a nice new suite of bedrooms. Your declaration, if approved, will give rise to a declaration of non-opposition. Even so, you must then lodge a declaration of conformity of the conversion works with the building regulations and the planning legislation generally.
The mairie then has three months within which to find that you don’t conform. It can, of course, send out an inspector if it wants. Usually it does precisely nothing. After the three months, its silence means that it has tacitly agreed that your works conform. This conformity system applies to building permissions too.
BREAK THE RULES
What if your works are not in conformity? The mairie can go to the regional court for an order requiring the works to be demolished or made to conform, and it has 10 years from the completion of the works within which to do so. It can also impose on you a penalty of between €1,200 and €6,000/m² of improperly constructed works. It has three years from the completion of the works within which to do so.
Moreover, if your property burns down and you want permission to build it again your application can be refused if it didn’t conform before it burnt down. Depending on the seriousness of the case, the mairie can stop you connecting up the water, gas and electricity.
Adjoining owners, who only have two months to oppose if your building permission or administrative consent has duly been granted, have five years to bring opposition proceedings where you are out of line with the system. Of course, they can only object on planning grounds, not simply because they do not like your works.
The basic message here is that you had better watch out and jump through all the hoops. I will add, however, that there is a lot more land in France than in England and in my experience the plannning laws are applied intelligently, reasonably and sympathetically in France.
Note also that many places in France have a plan local d’urbanisme (local development plan) dividing the local area into planning zones. Particularly in country areas, the plan will lay down the zones reserved for agriculture. In that case, you can only build a new construction for agricultural purposes or as a farmhouse within which you can live as a farmer. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain permission for non-farming purposes.
Take care. You can go round to the mairie and in small villages you can see monsieur le maire himself if you want. He will be courteous and pleasant to you. But, of course, he will apply the law. That is his job.
Sean O’Connor is a French property lawyer
Tel: 01732 365378