When does a houseboat become a “hereditament”?

In Reeves v Northrop [2012] EWHC 415 Admin, this precise question arose in the context of an appeal by the valuation officer (Reeves) against a decision of the Valuation Tribunal.  It’s a little off the beaten track for us (a council tax appeal) but, at its heart, this is another case about transience/ permanence and the constitution of property; the meaning of “dwelling”; there’s also Shapps’ suggestion that more use should be made of houseboats.

Mr Northrop and his family have lived in the houseboat since 2001.  Between December 2008 and October 2011, it was sited on an informal mooring in Barnstaple, resting on the mud flat, but secured.  Subsequently, Mr Northrop dug out a mud berth for the boat.  Mr Northrop clearly enjoyed his life, and perhaps inadvisedly discussed it in an article in the North Devon journal.  That article alerted the local authority to its non-existence for council tax purposes, and the valuation office then put it into list.  Mr Northrop successfully appealed to the Valuation Tribunal on the basis that the boat was not a dwelling for the purposes of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 as it was not “a hereditament” (s 3).  There is an amazing amount of rather difficult case law on the question of hereditament, which (broadly) resolves down to four features: actual occupation; exclusive occupation for the particular purposes of the possessor; the possession must be of some value/benefit to the possessor; and the possession must not be for too transient a period.  It was the last factor which was in issue here.  The tribunal was persuaded that, despite the length of time which Mr Northrop and his family had occupied the boat, a range of other factors (the nature of the vessel and the overall circumstances of the mooring arrangements) militated against finding it to be a hereditament.

At the appeal before Wyn Williams J, the valuation officer argued that the sole criterion relevant to the fourth factor was the length of time it had been there.  That argument was bound to fail – quite apart from anything else, the authorities were against the argument.  However, there was a slightly more nuanced argument that the tribunal had failed to regard the length of time it had been moored in the same location as a very significant factor against it being transient.  This argument was successful (at [35]) as the tribunal did not accord the length of time it had been there its proper significance.  Further, the tribunal was wrong to take acocunt of the overall circumstances of the mooring arrangements, which was taken to mean how Mr Northrop secured his boat (which had no bearing on the duration of his occupation, [38]).

Rather than remitting the case back to the tribunal, Wyn Williams J exercised the jurisdiction himself to decide that it was sufficiently permanent to constitute a hereditament (even though it could be used as a boat) ([45]).

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