Paper tigers

I once believed that there were few things that could strike greater fear into the heart of a home owner than a letter with the words “planning application” on it. The prospect of having to endure construction work on your doorstep, possibly to plans that you object to, may make you want to get back under the duvet and stay there. I know better now. The really frightening thing for anyone who has invested their money in bricks and mortar is to see someone begin work on a neighbouring property without having gone through the process of getting one accepted or needing to do so.

Our first experience of an outhouse on our boundary was a tame one. Our neighbour replaced her garden shed with something more substantial and, while it isn’t a thing of beauty, it was an improvement on a structure that would have made Heath Robinson proud. If you stand in the right place in the kitchen you can’t even see it. The second outhouse appeared at the end of the garden following weeks of pounding as foundations were put in place. Not only did we have to tolerate vibrations and noise, we realised that the builders had come into our garden, in an area screened off by trees and shrubs, to finish off the building from our side of the boundary without asking us first. They didn’t take their rubbish home with them either. The building had vents that suggested a heating system was in place and the frosted window overlooking our garden that a toilet had been installed. Work was also carried out on the main house. The neighbour who lived in the property adjacent to it found that he was living next to an office for a company that dealt in aggregates. The trucks began to pull up, leaving their engines running, while paperwork was collected as early as 6am. The outhouse became home to the drivers.

I informed the planning department, while it was being built, that I had concerns about it but had no acknowledgement or indication that anything had been done. In the end I raised it at a ward forum as my neighbour’s life was being made a misery by the noise of deliveries and the after hours activities of the outhouse occupants. The property’s owner was obliged to make a retrospective planning application which was defeated by residents who signed a petition and sent letters of objection. The planning department denied the application on the grounds that the building was too small to be divided into an office and flat, and that its use as business premises was inappropriate. They also objected to the use of the outhouse (described as a “gym” on the application) as accommodation. In the end it took about three years of attention from the council’s planning department and ward councillors, plus the visit of a planning officer accompanied by police officers, to get the office closed down.

The most recent structure of this kind, and the one closest to our house, was built about eighteen months ago. The owner of the property, which had a garden adjacent to ours, had been letting it for some time and had not bothered to repair the boundary fence or clear the growth there. I was surprised to have her knock on the door and ask if the passage next to our house was an alleyway as she was going to build a “home office” for her son, the doctor. I advised her that it wasn’t, it was on our property. That was why it was behind a locked gate. I also told her that I wasn’t happy with her plans because it would be too close to our house. By this time the “beds in sheds” issue was often in the news and I was really concerned at the impact the outhouse might have on the value of our home. I certainly wasn’t convinced about its being an office.

My heart sank as the view from our kitchen window changed from a green leafy one to a rendered breeze block wall. The men building it took a very relaxed approach to their work, sitting on top of sections they had just built with feet dangling and sealing the roof with blowtorches that came uncomfortably close to our small wooden shed. The structure was built right up to the boundary so in orderto render it the workmen climbed over its roof and entered our garden without asking our permission. The first I knew of it was the sound of their voices outside our back door. They were told to leave and eventually did so, pulling their ladders back across the roof but came back after I left for work, leaving lumps of render on our side. For reasons only they can explain they showed other neighbours the interior with its toilet and shower. I am convinced that, had they been able to use the passageway on our side of the boundary, they would have put a door into the wall to create a separate entrance. The standard of work was poor, we could see the roof beginning to peel soon after completion, and they did us a further disservice by pouring concrete into the gap between the outhouse and the hard standing on our side. The outhouse transmits every vibration caused by passing traffic on the main road to our side of the boundary.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, originally, people built outhouses because they could, not because they necessarily had a use for them. When they began to build them with amenities such as toilets the authorities had to take notice as they were being let out for profit as dwellings without being built to the standard required for that purpose. In the past they were hard to identify and report because they are usually hidden from view in back gardens, and ignored by neighbours who want to do the same thing themselves. Our objection to the one close to our house isn’t just based on the way it looks. As far as we’re concerned there is a potential fire risk two metres away from our home. Outhouses have become a significant source of concern for firefighters who are often called out to deal with fires started by tenants trying to cook inside them. The council’s dedicated outhouse team have been informed but they have a backlog of reports to deal with. Those are just the cases they are aware of – I’ve been told that there are others being let out in our street and the surrounding ones. The problem of “beds in sheds” has finally begun to attract attention and funding because it creates hidden concentrations of residents who access essential services and generate waste just like every other household without existing officially. Home owners have also forced occupied outhouses further up the agenda because of the negative effect they can have on the value of a home, wiping thousands of pounds off it. Unfortunately the issue of outhouses pales into insignificance when compared with what other “developers” are getting up to in the borough.

Recently we were woken by a sound that has become familiar over the last three years. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bill Hailey and the Comets, followed by their other hits, is often the soundtrack to a delivery of building materials for the property across the road. We’ve never bothered to see if the driver sports a quiff, it’s bad enough having his taste in music forced on us at 7.30 on a Saturday morning, along with the sound of the engine running and the winch lifting goods into place. His arrival heralded the latest instalment in a long running planning saga that began when skip trucks started waking us up at weekends in 2012, in the weeks leading up to the unexpected demolition of a small detached house which we thought was undergoing renovation by its new owner.

For about three weeks the smell of bonfires hung over the area as mature conifers in the back garden were cut down and burned, along with anything else he wanted to get rid of. Three fire engines arrived on a Sunday morning, alerted by a resident who was concerned that the bonfires had been left to burn all night. Then, on a Saturday morning in July 2012, tiles began to crash into the front garden across the road, dropped there by men standing on the roof. We thought they might be replacing them, but as the roof disappeared altogether, stripped down to the beams, we began to realise that something drastic was happening. There had been no letters advising us of a planning application for any serious alterations to the house and by the time the roof timbers were being sawn off we knew that the property’s owner didn’t feel the need to go through the time consuming business of applying for permission from the council. He was about to do what he damned well wanted.

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Other residents, aghast at what was happening, had come out onto the street to demand an explanation from those carrying out the work. They were met for the most part with sarcastic comments and in at least one case with a threat, which the intervention of an off duty police officer prevented from escalating any further. It wasn’t just the fact of the demolition taking place, the manner in which it was being conducted proved that those undertaking it had absolutely no concern for their own safety, let alone that of those walking past or living nearby. There were no barriers in place between the site and the pavement, chips of masonry were flying about and a cloud of dust rose over us. The workmen themselves were not wearing hard hats or high visibility vests. My partner watched, fascinated, as one man stood on the section of wall he was hitting with a sledgehammer. It was like watching someone saw off a branch as they sat on it. I was desperately worried that the gas and electricity supplies might not have been disconnected. I went outside to take photos, trying to appear relaxed and unconcerned but, in fact, I was shaking. I had no idea how to prevent these men doing something dangerous and it was frightening.

I phoned Ealing Council to see if they could stop things going any further and managed, eventually, to speak to the building enforcement officer on call that weekend. I told him that I feared a gas explosion but he proved reluctant to visit the site or to take any immediate action, even though I emphasised that residents, as well as those carrying out the demolition, were at risk of injury. He gave me an email address to send my complaint and photos to which would be dealt with on the following Monday. He suggested contacting the Health and Safety Executive if I thought things were that dangerous. By that afternoon most of the first floor had also been taken down (the front wall of the house fell down with an impressive crash) but the walls at the sides and rear were proving harder to tackle with sledgehammers so they stopped for the night. The site was left open with nothing to prevent access to the remains of the building which was at risk of collapse. I was unable to sleep because of my concern that there might be a gas leak and got up early to take more photos of what looked like a bomb site. The work continued throughout Sunday.

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It wasn’t until Monday, once enforcement officers at the council’s planning department checked their inboxes and began answering phone calls that any action was taken. I watched as a ward councillor, enraged at what was happening, harangued the workmen. There was a lot of gesticulating on her part but they carried on. The site owner was called to a meeting with planning officers on Tuesday at which he was told to stop work and at which it was confirmed that the gas and electricity had not been disconnected. This was done that afternoon but the demolition continued.

A small JCB arrived and a succession of trucks with grabs, barely able to negotiate the space, carried away the rubble. Pavements were broken as they came and went. On Wednesday the chief planning officer arrived to tell them to stop working only to find that there was nothing left to stop. The house was gone and the ground was being levelled. In the process of doing so the JCB operator cut through a cable from the neighbouring electricity substation, causing a powercut. Whatever was left that could be burned was on yet another bonfire.

Flimsy barriers went up. The site owner, who shared a driveway and access to garages with a neighbour, used them to seal it off, preventing his neighbour’s use of it. In the months that followed they acted as a screen for burglars who accessed his neighbour’s back door by pushing a section to one side. The children who lived there became too afraid to sleep. While this went on the site owner began to apply for planning permission. The first application was ludicrous. He wanted to build a six bedroom property on the site of a two bedroom one. The plan would have meant his building it across the shared driveway. It was rejected after I leafleted the area asking that residents object to it. The next one also asked for six bedrooms but described two of them as studies (which actually meant bedroom). A second round of leaflets put paid to the second application. The third application, for three bedrooms and a small room in the roof space was allowed through with some minor objections on its appearance. I would have preferred to hold out for a two bedroom house but there comes a point where you have to stand back.

Eventually the building work began and, in an effort to get things over with as soon as possible, we kept our mouths shut about the noisy work that went on at all hours and the deliveries that arrived throughout weekends and bank holidays. We did tell the council about the pavements (which had been repaired) that were cracked as large trucks manoeuvered between parked cars to reach the site. We spent a very nervous Christmas and New Year across the road from the site as the plastic covers that protected the scaffolding caught the strong winds, which tore one section away. It went on and on and on until, finally the house appeared to be finished. The owner moved in but that was not the end of it. Trucks continued to come and go. Out of desperation I emailed the photos that I had taken and the background story to the one of our new ward councillors and it stopped. Or so we thought.

We believed that what happened in our street was an extreme example of the flouting of regulations but the words of a planning officer who took a call from a neighbour alerting her to the demolition sent a chill through me. She said “It’s happening all over the borough.” In other words, residents across the area are facing the same irresponsible, reckless behaviour and experiencing the same fear and disturbance that we did. And those are just the cases the council knows about. It’s enough of a concern that the council seems incapable of dealing firmly with planning breaches that they are aware of. How many residents are unaware that they have a right to complain to them about work that is being carried out without permission? How many ignore what is going on because they plan to do the same thing themselves?

The fact is that blatant breaches of planning regulations are now evident in every street in the borough. I had the opportunity to speak to the council’s chief planning officer (a very patient man) and ask him about the number of front gardens that have been paved over in Greenford. He told me that the most you are supposed to pave over is five square metres, enough hard standing to park one vehicle. If that’s the case why have so many home owners been allowed to break the rules and pave over far larger areas, without even adding drainage channels to cope with run off? I can only think that general ignorance, in most cases, means that those who replace lawns and shrubs with concrete do so unaware that they are breaking the rules. They see their neighbours doing it and assume that that there aren’t any. I was told that I can report every such front garden to the planning department but I suspect the most they will do is ask that drainage channels are put in, if they bother to act at all.

It doesn’t surprise me that paved over gardens are low on the list of priorities for them. Their workload is taken up with cases where houses have been illegally (and often dangerously) converted into flats, or extensions housing expensive kitchens have been built. Fines for those who are successfully prosecuted for breaching planning regulations seem to be getting more punitive but the process seems so long drawn out that those affected by it must despair that anything will come of it.

I asked the candidates for the constituency of Ealing North to comment on the issue of planning enforcement:
Steve Pound (Labour, MP for Ealing North since 1997): “I’d need to know a bit about the specific planning cases that you refer to as I consider Ealing to have one of the better London planning departments – and I am not speaking only as a former Chair of Planning at the Town Hall! The last government widened the scope of permitted development which was, in my opinion, a disaster for the reasons you identify. I’m currently involved with eight cases of imminent full or part demolition of properties that have been built or extended beyond the permitted size and you would scarce credit the anguished cries of the developers!”

Kevin McNamara (Liberal Democrat): “I am deeply troubled to hear this. I get that planning law is not perfect, and I object to sections, but I also know that everyone must follow the law, and the council must rigidly enforce it lest they make a mockery of the entire process.”

Meena Hans (Green): “We recognise the need to build more housing but believe the effect on the environment should be kept to a minimum. In order to achieve this, building would be strictly regulated and priority given to the maintenance and improvement of existing properties before new house building was considered.”

This candidate did not make a specific reference to the issue of planning enforcement but I took this to be his response to my question to him about it:
David Hofman (TUSC): “Ultimately all the issues which you listed can only be satisfactorily resolved by a major reorganisation of our society so that needs of people, rather than those of big business profits, are the prime motive. In other words, a socialist society. We in TUSC believe this change cannot come soon enough, given the problems faced by ordinary people.”

The UKIP candidate was too busy to respond. There was no response at all from the Conservative candidate.

I’ve heard residents complain for years about Ealing Council’s planning department. They’re either riled that permission has been denied for something they consider perfectly reasonable or upset that something they don’t approve of has been allowed through. It’s understandable that they should have strong opinions about whatever may add value to the biggest investment that most of them will make at any time in their lives. If they feel the house they have spent years paying for is at risk of being devalued by someone else’s actions you might expect them to be concerned and very angry. I know from personal experience just how powerless they can feel when someone ignores the rules and appears to get away with it.

While I understand that funding for the services we all depend on must come first I am concerned at the potential impact of planning breaches that go unremarked and unpunished because the department that deals with them is so overstretched. Since watching that demolition in 2012 I have seen other houses being built or altered in Greenford and wondered if planning permission has been granted in each case. There is nothing to stop outhouses being built in back gardens but I feel there should now be a permanent ban on all such construction. It’s the only way to prevent them being used inappropriately and I am worried about the increase in run off. Ealing Council’s planning department needs more funding, more manpower and more teeth. It’s absurd that I can see so many outhouses, some of them quite substantial, using satellite imagery that I can access for free yet the official body that is supposed to protect the interests of local residents and home owners does not appear to be using it to investigate cases. It’s shocking that builders can be as reckless as the ones I saw at work in my own street and go unpunished for their irresponsible behaviour. Their actions have reinforced my opinion that all builders working in the UK should be registered and have recognised qualifications.

For the moment the dust has settled but I dread any signs that someone else is preparing to wall off our patch of garden any further with another outhouse. I dread the need for endless phone calls, letters, photos and emails that inconsiderate building creates. So much of my time and energy has been wasted through the selfishness of others that I could have used more profitably but in the end it will be the generations who inherit the mess resulting from uncontrolled building who really suffer, our children who will pay the price.

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2015 except for quotes. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

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