A certificat d’urbanisme provides formal advice on your entitlement to carry out building works in France, useful at the time of property purchase.
These documents, which are issued on request by the local planning authority, do not confer a planning consent (permis de construire); they merely provide an official statement of what is permitted development on the site or property in question.
Those buying building land in France need to ensure they make the purchase at least conditional on receipt of a suitable certificat d’urbanisme from the council for the construction work they propose to undertake.
The same advice applies if you are proposing an extension or major changes to the facade of an existing property, particularly if it is located in a conservation area or other protected zone.
Obtaining a certificat d’urbanisme should normally be part of the work carried out by the notaire at the time of the property purchase, but unless you expressly request them to do so, they will only obtain information on the existing planning status of the land/property, which may not cover the particular building work you may wish to undertake.
There are actually two types of certificate, and one offers fewer guarantees than the other.
If there is any doubt about what you may be entitled to construct, the best approach is to seek a certificat d’urbanisme opérationnel, a planning advice certificate that provides a greater degree of detail about what you can do over that of the more general certificat d’urbanisme d'information.
In order to obtain a certificat d’urbanisme opérationnel you will be required to submit some basic design proposals, but it may well be worth making the extra effort to have greater peace of mind.
These certificates are time limited up to a maximum of 18 months, although there is a procedure for renewal for up to a year, provided you submit the demand at least two months prior to expiry of the existing certificate.
Accordingly, do not think you can buy a building plot in France and sit on it indefinitely, as it is possible that after expiry of the certificate the planning status of the land to change.
A number of our readers have contacted us in the past to say they have made precisely this mistake, having purchased a plot on which they hope to build on in their retirement, only to later find they can no longer do so.
It also does sometimes occur that the information provided on these certificates is erroneous or incomplete, either because it breaches local or national planning laws.
Thankfully, the evidence suggests such errors do not occur very frequently, but the fact that they occur at all is cause enough for concern.
Perhaps the most difficult area concerns those planning certificates that have omitted important information, rather than those that provided advice that was simply wrong.
Nevertheless, whether wrong by omission or fact, the difficulty for the applicant is that the council would not be entitled to stand by their advice and allow the information given in the planning certificate to stand.
You might be then faced with having purchased land or property on which you could not carry out the proposed works.
The only recourse open to you would be to bring a legal action against the council for damages you had occurred, provided of course you had actually suffered a prejudice as a result of the information you received.
Although it may be small consolation, cases that have passed through the French courts testify to complainants who have found good cause against councils, and for which they have obtained damages, in some cases very substantial compensation.
The lesson to be drawn from such cases is to ensure that your application for a certificate is as clear and precise as possible, to which end you are probably best advised to obtain good professional assistance.