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In an important decision for property professionals, the High Court has ruled that, when considering the nature of a single unit of accommodation, a simple application of the 'bricks and mortar' test is too narrow and that the use to which rooms are actually put can legitimately be taken into account.
The case concerned a listed house which had been converted into two flats and was thus treated as two units for Council Tax purposes. A couple who later bought the house converted it back into a single family home. Their transformation of the property's internal layout was constrained by its listed status but they argued that the works they were able to carry out had turned it back into a single unit.
Their arguments were, however, rejected by a local authority valuation officer on the basis that the house's lower ground floor remained a separate unit, which would lead to a higher rates charge. Although the basement had no kitchen of its own, a laundry room which the couple had installed could be used for food preparation by simply plugging in a microwave.
That decision was subsequently overturned by the Valuation Tribunal for England (VTE) but the valuation officer appealed. In rejecting her arguments, however, the Court found that to disregard the house's internal layout, fittings and services would be too literal an application of the bricks and mortar test. The physical characteristics of the building included the facilities installed for essential living functions, including cooking, washing and laundry.
It was permissible for the VTE to have regard to the evidence that the house was in fact in use as a single dwelling, whose sole kitchen was on the ground floor and whose sole laundry facilities were in the basement. In those circumstances, the house was a single unit of accommodation and should be recognised as such on the local valuation list.