Planning permission rules in France explained
Our expert Matthew Cameron reveals the planning permission rules you need to know before starting a renovation project in France and explains how you can obtain permission
When buying a dream home in France, many new owners plan renovation works to put their stamp on the property. In most cases, changing the wallpaper or internal décor may not require any prior authorisation. However, before carrying out any work, it is advisable to contact the local mairieto check what can or cannot be done, even for things that, at first glance, would appear harmless. For example, if the property is located close to an historic building, it may be necessary to check with an architecte des bâtiments de France as to what colour can be used to repaint the shutters. In practice, the required authorisations will often depend on the purchaser’s plans for the property.
When you are buying a plot of land to build a new property or planning to extend an existing property, it is highly advisable to at least obtain a certificat d’urbanisme pré-opérationnel, or CU. This is issued by the local authorities to confirm whether or not the current planning rules, which apply within the area where the property is situated, would prevent the purchaser from realising their plans. The application submitted should, therefore, contain a precise description of the planned work. Once issued, it is usually valid for 18 months. In that time, even if the local authority were to amend their planning rules, the work envisaged would still be permissible.
This is, however, not the final authorisation. Even with a CU, the purchaser will have to obtain planning permission, as the CU is only a confirmation that there is nothing within the local planning rules that would prevent a particular proposal being acceptable.
The two main forms of development authorisation are the déclaration préalable de travaux dispensés de permis de construire, and the permis de construire. This is why, when buying a property in which development works are important, and depending on the work to be done, it may be necessary to have as a condition suspensivein the compromis de vente, not only the CU, but also the final authorisation itself. For example, just because there is an existing construction on a plot of land, it does not follow that it will automatically be suitable for a rebuild: the planning rules may have changed prohibiting any future construction. Therefore, an application should be made both to demolish the existing structure, and then to rebuild another. There have been cases in the past where people have obtained permission to demolish, and once the land has been cleared, they then apply for permission to build something new, only for the application to be refused on the basis that the land has been recently designated non-constructible.
A déclaration préalable de travaux is the authorisation required for minor work such as building a garden shed smaller than 20m². Once the application has been properly completed and submitted, the local authorities have one month to process it. If the applicant does not receive a response within this timeframe, the authorisation is treated as granted. Otherwise the local mairie issues either a positive or a negative decision and confirmation is sent to the applicant.
A permis de construire will be necessary for bigger projects, or, for example, to convert a barn into a dwelling, as this is likely to be treated as a new construction for planning purposes. As for the déclaration préalable de travaux, the application is also submitted to the local mairie. In some cases, and in particular when the proposed development exceeds 170m², the plans must be drafted by an architect. The local authorities have, in general, two months to process a complete application. In this case too, if no reply is received, authorisation is treated as granted. It is, however, prudent to ensure the application has been given an official approval before starting work. When a building is to be demolished, a permis de démolir will be necessary.
Technically, once authorisation has been granted, the authorities have a three-month period in which they can withdraw it. Even if it seems rather unlikely that planning permission to build a dwelling in the countryside might be withdrawn after it has been officially granted, it is wise to take this risk into account. There is also an obligation for the beneficiary of the authorisation to display it at the property. A special board must be used for this. In practice, it is advisable to ask a huissier de justice to draft a report in order to ascertain that this obligation has been met. In addition, for two months after the authorisation has been displayed at the property, third parties such as neighbours may challenge it. Once the three months have elapsed, a certificate should be requested from the mairie to confirm that the authorisation was neither withdrawn nor challenged.
BEGINNING RENOVATION WORK
The authorities must be kept informed that work has begun. A form known as a déclaration d’ouverture de chantier is completed in this respect. This ouverture de chantier must usually take place within two years of the authorisation being granted. If not, the authorisation may be taken as no longer valid. The same situation may apply if, once the work has started, it stops for more than a year.
Once the work has been completed, a déclaration d’achèvement des travaux and certificat de conformité is submitted by the owners or their architect. This is intended to confirm that the work carried out complies with the initial authorisation. If and when the property is sold, this document is likely to be requested by any potential purchaser and, unfortunately, it is not always easy to obtain it, several years after completion of the work. This déclaration d’achèvement des travaux is also used by the French tax administration to update the records relating to the property.
Previously, the local authority would visit the property after a declaration of completion had been filed, in order to grant the certificate of conformity. It is now up to the owner to file confirmation that the works have been completed and that they comply. The local authority can then inspect within two months should they wish to contest the conformity. In the absence of such an inspection, the works are deemed to be in order.
Building without authorisation may lead to judicial proceedings, fines or even an obligation to demolish what has been built without permission. This situation may also impact on the valuation of the property or its coverage by an insurance company. It is advisable to carefully follow the various steps, whether one is anticipating renovation of an existing property or purchasing a new home that requires development. In the latter case, the purchase contract should make specific reference to, and be conditional on, such proposals. As ever, it is also wise to seek specialised advice.
Matthew Cameron is a partner and head of the French Legal Services team at law firm Ashton KCJ. www.ashtonkcj.co.ukRead how an expat couple renovated their Normandy farmhouse for some inspiration for your renovation.
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