Law Report: A `houseboat’ does not have to be boat-shaped

Author: Kate O’Hanlon, Barrister

Sussex Investments Ltd v Secretary of State for the Environment; Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Hirst, Lord Justice Robert Walker and Mr Justice Harman) 18 December 1997.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appellant’s appeal against an enforcement notice issued in respect of an alleged unauthorised change of use of land.

An established use certificate had been issued in 1987, certifying that the use of certain land on the towpath at Shepperton “for mooring of nine residential houseboats” had been established within the meaning of the statutory provisions then in force. In 1991 a craft named Sunbeam II was moored off the towpath. The appellant said it was a houseboat, but an enforcement notice was issued by the local planning authority, describing it as a stationary floating platform on which a prefabricated wooden dwel- ling-house was affixed.

The appellant appealed against the enforcement notice. The Inspector appointed to consider the appeal treated the test as being whether Sunbeam II would be recognisable as a boat to the man in the street, and concluded that the craft would be seen as a two-storey house standing on a floating platform and was not, as a matter of fact and degree, a boat.

The Secretary of State, on appeal against the Inspector’s decision, reached the same conclusion. The appellant applied to the High Court under section 289 of the 1990 Act, and the judge, having said that the meaning of an ordinary word was a matter of law, held that a house built on a floating platform which did not have a boat-like shape was not a houseboat even if it was capable of navigation.

John Howell QC (Simon Jacksons) for the appellant; Alun Alesbury (Treasury Solicitor) for the Secretary of State.

Lord Justice Robert Walker said that counsel for the appellant had submitted that a particular shape was not a necessary feature of a boat. The fallacy in the Inspector’s decision and the judgment below was to fasten on the characteristic of being “boat-shaped” and then to treat that as the defining characteristic of boats in general and of residential houseboats in particular.

Whilst there was force in that criticism, the more general proposition that the expression “boat-shaped” was so imprecise as to be meaningless could not be accepted, nor was there anything absurd in saying that not all boats were boat-shaped.

The expression was imprecise but it conveyed the general idea of a curved, elongated container, tapering at the ends, and sometimes tapering more at one end than the other. Not every craft recognisable as a boat had that shape.

It had further been submitted that given that the function of a houseboat was to provide residential accomodation on water, it was reasonable to expect that the superstructure might well resemble a house in appearance. That might, however, be met by the counter-argument that the more a houseboat looked like a house, the less it looked like a boat.

The appeal had been brought under section 289 of the 1990 Act on a point of law alone. It was only in a limited sense that the true meaning of an ordinary word in a legal document was a question of law.

The judge had erred if and insofar as he had thought he had to provide, as the answer to a question of law, a precise definition of “houseboat”. Moreover, he had been wrong to take the view that as a matter of law a houseboat must be “boat-shaped”. But a craft which consisted of a low rectangular floating platform with a two-storey prefabricated building erected on it differed from a typical houseboat in more that the shape of its hull. It might diverge so far from the typical as no longer to merit the description “houseboat” as that expression would normally be used. Whether it did so was a question of fact or degree. It was a jury question.

The essential point was not whether the judge’s reasoning had been correct, but whether the Secretary of State, in reliance on the Inspector’s report, had misdirected himself in his approach to that jury question. Whilst his approach had tended to be over-analytical and had attached rather too much importance to dictionary definitions, nonetheless, his conclusion that: “as a matter of fact and degree, Sunbeam II was not a houseboat for the purposes of the EUC” was unassailable in point of law. The appeal would be dismissed.

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