Containers as Homes, Businesses & Shops: From a Planning Lawyer's Perspective

We have received a number of queries about installing and living in storage containers – so-called ‘container homes’ – particularly on agricultural land or within the countryside. Judging from the articles like these - and - container homes are being promoted as a quicker, less expensive alternative to traditional built brick and mortar houses. 

The first article provides a useful definition of container homes stating:

“Container homes are homes made from the large metal shipping containers you see transporting goods on ships, trucks, and trains – or being used to store goods. Shipping containers are designed to travel long distances around the world, and as a result, are made from highly durable materials such as steel. This makes them extremely durable and enables them to withstand wear and tear and remain in excellent condition for many years. Container homes also have significantly lower construction and maintenance costs when compared to traditional homes, which makes them extremely appealing to potential housebuyers.”

There are obvious advantages to using ready-made container homes over having to actually build a house. However, a significant consideration is whether such a move requires planning permission. While the articles above attempt to outline the planning implications, people still come to us, as planning lawyers, for certainty as to whether container homes will deliver what they want: a home in a nice green area and perhaps a reduction of the some of the bureaucracy that comes with engaging the planning system.  

To understand how planning controls relate to container homes, it is important to understand some basic planning principles. Planning controls, and therefore the need or otherwise to apply for planning permission, revolve around the concept of ‘development’. If one’s actions constitute ‘development’, planning permission will be required, unless specified exceptions apply. Another important principle is that planning permission can be granted individually, nationally, by virtue of permitted development rights or, less frequently, locally by a development and other types of orders. 

‘Development’ is defined as either operational development or a material change of use of an area of land often referred to as a planning unit. Operational development encompasses building, engineering, mining and other operations – building operations being most relevant to this article.

How does this fit in with container homes? If you bring a container home on to your land, have you carried out ‘development’? Not necessarily. It is not usually classed as operational development as you haven’t built anything, nor is the simple act of bringing a container on land materially changing the use of the land. However, things can get complicated and if alerted, the local planning authority - the Council - may want to find out what is going on. 

Firstly, there is a chance that the authority will class a container or any other mobile structure as ‘operational development’ if that structure is substantial, has been on (or is likely to be on) the same spot on the land for a long period of time or is physically attached to the land. There is a whole raft of complex case law about this and if this is likely to arise, the situation requires careful assessment by the landowner (or tenant or other occupier) or preferably their lawyers or professional advisers and the Council. 

The more common issue revolves around what the landowner does with that container and whether it amounts to a material change of use and therefore development. If the container is used in conjunction with the main use of the land, there is unlikely to be a material change of use and planning permission will not be required. For instance, if a storage container is brought on to agricultural land to store animal feed, produce or medicine, planning permission will not be required. Planning permission will also not be required for a storage container brought on to residential land (or a house and garden) to store gardening or domestic items.    

However, if the landowner wants to use the container for a use which is unconnected to the main use of land, the question may arise as to whether there has been a material change of use. An example of this is if someone places a storage container on agricultural land to live in. As the lawful use of the land is agricultural, that person would be introducing a residential use to that land. This is likely to amount to a material change of use,  would require further investigation and may result in the need to apply for planning permission.   

The person would also need to consider what other work may be required to make the container habitable, like hardstanding to place the container on, or to construct a drive or an earth bund for whatever reason. These may amount to building or engineering works which require planning permission. 

The linked articles above also make reference to placing containers in gardens and measurements relating to covering more than half of the garden. This relates to certain procedures and limitations set out national permitted development rights, mentioned above, which the landowner will need to consider before taking advantage of those rights.

The question we often get asked goes something like this ‘I want to bring a container on to the land to live in. What is the best way of going about it?’ The landowner may want to know, having read articles such as the ones above, things like ‘Should I buy this container home? Will it really deliver what I want, which is a cheap, quick home without the hassle of engaging the planning authorities?’

The answer, rather than a quick guarantee over the phone, often includes some of the following: a detailed check about what kind of container you want to buy, what its dimensions are and where you want to put it; the lawful planning use of the land you want to put it in; planning laws regarding the definition of development; a risk assessment relating to planning enforcement, and a review of the planning policies in the area regarding land use, design and sustainability.