‘Windy Ridge’ is just one example of the extreme inconsistency that is prevalent in Dover District Council’s decision making. There are many, many other examples.
When challenged about their inconsistent decisions, the Council’s standard response is that each case is judged on its merits. And so it should be, but they don’t disclose or justify what those merits are. The flexibility, inherent in the planning decision-making process, makes it easy for planners to show both favouritism and discrimination as they see fit, which leaves the system open to abuse and corruption.
In reality so much will depend on who the ‘applicant’ is.
Suzanne Maxted was the owner of ‘Windy Ridge’, a bungalow in Preston Hill, Wingham. She was an eccentric person with a fiery temper and well known to the local people. The Post Mistress in Wingham would not allow her into the Post Office because of her foul language so she had to wait outside for her pension to be brought to her. Miss Maxted could often be seen chasing and stoning her ‘husband’ as he ran away from her, across the fields, in his underpants.
One day her husband would not move from the deck chair that he was sitting in, so she set light to it. Unfortunately he was very close to the bungalow at the time and that too caught alight and was destroyed in the fire. That was in August 1977 and thereafter the property remained an uninhabitable ruin.
After the fire Miss Maxted initially lived in a brown & cream coloured caravan. Before long all the windows in her caravan were smashed and the caravan ruined. She then lived in various structures including a tent and a makeshift tarpaulin structure strung between the trees. There were no washing or toilet facilities.
Miss Maxted bequeathed her land to the National Trust when she died, as her wish was to aid conservation and wildlife. She never intended for her land to be re-developed. Nevertheless after her death, an application was made in 1998 to Dover District Council for a Certificate of Lawful Use.
The applicant’s agent sought information supporting the residential use of the land and one of the people contacted was Mr David Sturt, Dover Council’s former Chief Planning Officer, who had left the Council and became involved with the church. Mr Sturt had been helping with a ‘soup run’ to the homeless in Canterbury where he met Miss Maxted, who had joined the group.
I employed a private investigator to interview Mr Sturt in 2004. One of the things he was questioned about was ‘Windy Ridge’ and he confirmed that he recalls Miss Maxted lived in a tent. Mr Sturt was also questioned about a letter he sent supporting the application for a Certificate of Lawful Use.
Mr Sturt denied writing such a letter.
However, I have a copy of that letter, which he had personally signed and in it Mr Sturt refers to the time he was employed at DDC and had occasion to go on to the site. In the letter he states:
…”It was overgrown. There was a derelict caravan and the ruins of a bungalow. There was evidence of the bungalow being slept in – a simple bed and various drinking and cooking utensils. I believe this was in a lean to part of the bungalow. At that time she was clearly sleeping in the ruined bungalow rather than the caravan”.
So did Mr Sturt lie, or did he forget?
The following is a brief resume of the Council records relating to the application for a Certificate of Lawful Use at ‘Windy Ridge’:
Various officers who inspected ‘Windy Ridge’ confirmed that the bungalow had been badly damaged by fire, that it was effectively derelict and would require complete demolition prior to rebuilding and it appeared that no attempts were made by the owner to repair the bungalow or, indeed, to protect it from the elements. There is no particular reference at any time, however, to the “chalet” to which the application for a Certificate of Lawful Use related.
The “chalet” was effectively a weather boarded lean-to extension to the bungalow with a slate roof and an internal room division but lacking window glazing and flooring and no kitchen or bathroom facilities. The former dwelling had been vacated in 1977 and there was no clear evidence as to when the “chalet” was occupied following the fire.
The fact that a caravan was stationed on the land and received (temporary) planning permission shortly after the fire could well imply that the bungalow as a whole (including the “chalet”) was vacated. The fact that caravans were subsequently and continuously stationed on the land thereafter would suggest that, if indeed the whole of the former dwelling had been vacated in about 1977, such vacation continued.
The critical issue, therefore, is whether the apparent vacating of the “chalet” by the owner between the fire in 1977 and it’s re-occupation in (say) 1994/1995 (vacant for 17/18 years) constituted its abandonment. Although the period of non-use was comparatively lengthy, there is no evidence of any intervening use or of any deliberate intention to abandon this part of the total original dwelling. Its physical condition is poor, but it is essentially structurally complete and it is potentially capable of restoration. Case law indicates that it is possible to issue a certificate relating to such a two-roomed building where it is capable of supporting a basic residential use, as in this case.
Copied below is legal advice about what constitutes a dwelling house and the related concept of abandonment. It is an internal memorandum from Dover Council’s Head of Legal Services to their planning department and the subject is ‘Windy Ridge’.
The memo is dated 1998:
From: HEAD OF LEGAL SERVICES
To: Director of Planning and Technical Services
(Originator) Ian Ginbey – Ext: 2328
Attn: Tim Flisher
Subject: WINDY RIDGE, PRESTON HILL, WINGHAM
Your ref: TJF/EC/DOV/97/0912
My ref: L/IG/PLAN 1(W)
Date: 7 July 1998
Thank you for your memorandum of 29 June.
I note from the letter which you have received from the applicant’s agent that the application is now restricted to the “chalet” which is essentially what was agreed at last month’s site meeting. My recollection of that meeting is that it was also agreed that a structure, such as the “chalet”, is capable of being described as a “dwelling-house” and reference was made, in this respect, to the Gravesham case. This is also confirmed by the agent.
I would only add that you should have regard to the related concept of abandonment in the context of the application. In most cases, these two concepts are fused; that is, facts that point to abandonment will also point to the conclusion that the building is not a dwelling house. It follows that in the instant case the applicants should evidence that the use of the “chalet” as a dwelling-house has not been abandoned in order to gain the benefit of a Certificate of Lawfulness of Existing Use pursuant to Section 191 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I recall that the submitted evidence is a little vague in this respect with only one statement making reference to Miss Maxted’s occupation of the “chalet” (although it is possible that some of the evidence has been given on the premise that the bungalow and the “chalet” are one and the same). It is, of course, a matter for you to determine as a matter of fact and degree and you no doubt formed an opinion at the site meeting. Certainly, there appeared to be some evidence of residential occupation.
Notwithstanding the above, I should add for the sake of completeness that there obviously can be cases where even though a dwelling-house use has been abandoned, the building may still be regarded as constituting a dwelling-house. In such cases, operations could be undertaken to the building, but clearly it could not be used as a dwelling house without the grant of planning permission. Contrariwise, I suppose it is just conceivably possible to argue that, although a building was such a ruin that it could not be considered a dwelling house, the use as a dwelling house had never been abandoned.
Ian D. Ginbey (Assistant Solicitor)
For Head of Legal Services (JWH)
I have spoken to a number of local people who knew Miss Maxted’s living arrangements but nobody recalls the “chalet” which the Council refer to. They only remember seeing the floor slab of the burnt out bungalow and the fact that she lived in the various structures mentioned earlier including a caravan, a tent and a makeshift tarpaulin structure strung between the trees.
Subsequently a certificate of lawful use was granted for something that didn’t remotely resemble a dwelling and over twenty years after ‘Windy Ridge’ burnt to the ground and remained uninhabitable throughout that time, DDC granted permission for a ‘Replacement Dwelling’
Subsection (1) of Local Plan Policy DD7 states:
Proposals for replacement dwellings in the countryside will not be permitted unless the existing dwelling is: “A permanent structure in lawful residential use”
Subsection (2) states “Capable of continued residential use with the benefit of permitted development rights”
Clearly ‘Windy Ridge’ was not a permanent structure nor capable of continued residential use. It is incredulous that Dover Council decided the ruins of a burnt out bungalow, uninhabitable for so long, could be described as a dwelling yet apply a completely different criteria to my own case. It is indicative of the degree to which the nature of the applicant or owner of a property can influence planning decisions.
This is a clear example of the bizarre inconsistencies of DDC’s decision-making. They have applied one set of rules to my case and an entirely different set to the Windy Ridge case which resulted in the granting of planning permission in circumstances any reasonable person would consider far less justifiable than mine. It’s not sour grapes on my part but a serious concern that planning should apply equally and fairly to all.