Sherwood Mews - A Soggy Tale of Greed

Curmudgeonly councillor hastens the Townsend

In September 2007, Dacorum Borough Council's Development Control Committee granted my next-door neighbour planning consent to demolish his property and build a terrace of three, three-storey houses approximately 1.5 metres (less than four feet) from the wall of my home. This development is significantly higher than the two-storey house in which I live. It overlooks my back garden, blocks light from my home and results in cars parking within ten feet of my front bedroom window. The the previous front garden has been entirely lost to hard standing. In these days of mass car ownership, six car parking spaces are insufficient to satisfy the demand generated by three three-bedroom houses. Residents and their visitors frequently park on double yellow lines and block the pavement with parked vehicles. The previous single dwelling regularly had between four and six cars parked in its drive.

As you may be aware, the previous Labour government decreed that the south east of England must be crammed with expensive new houses, even though the region has insufficient water during drier summers to supply the houses it already has. Where possible, new building was required to be on "Brownfield sites", most of which were actually gardens. If a council refuses planning permission, the developer can appeal. If the appeal court judge rules that the council has not acted in accordance with government policy, he will overturn the decision, allow the development and order the council to pay the legal costs of both sides with Council Tax payers' money. If, however, planning permission is wrongly granted, neighbours have no right of appeal, unless they can afford a Judicial Review costing upwards of 40,000. As is usual in local government, the system is designed to serve the rich, not the just.

So was Dacorum Borough Council honest about the reasons why it could not refuse permission for this development? Of course not. Honesty is not the way of Dacorum Borough Council.

Planning Officer Jackie Ambrose provided the Development Control Committee with a report recommending that planning permission for the development be granted. This made no mention of Government Planning Policy Guidance. It looked more like the output of a property developers' agent than that of a professional planning officer paid by the taxpayer to serve the public. It was also a sloppy piece of work containing a succession of factual errors.

The officer's report stated that "this scheme will reintroduce the public footpath in front of the site" and "would create a continuous footpath down this side" of the street. There has never previously been a public footpath in front of the site during the time I have lived next door, which is over forty years. This scheme has not created a footway along this side the road, except for the few yards along the front of the site.

The report contained a ludicrous claim that parking within ten feet of my front bedroom window would cause no more noise than parking in the street, which is at least twenty feet away.

The report described "a high trimmed privet hedge" at the front boundary of the site. The privet was taken out more than fifteen years previously and replaced by Cupressus leylandii. Did Mrs. Ambrose take the trouble to visit the site, or did Mrs. Ambrose rely upon outdated information collected at the time of a previous planning application, when the street contained four fewer dwellings and no nursery school was using the street for access?

The report also described a block of flats at the foot of the road as "nine elderly persons' flats". The flats are not elderly persons' dwellings. Most of the residents are far from elderly, and would be entitled to feel insulted by this description. Sadly, the neighbours are well used to being insulted by the incompetent and dishonest officers of Dacorum Borough Council, and by the cowardly councillors who insist that the officers are always right.

Another neighbour and I spoke to the Development Control Committee regarding the likely effects of the development upon residents and the erroneous nature of Mrs. Ambrose's report. We would have been better off speaking to a brick wall. A brick wall is straighter than Dacorum Borough Council.

The committee was then addressed by Planning Officer Briony Curtain, who refused to accept correction of a single error in the report. She insisted on repeating that the hedge was "Privet". Speaking in the fluent patter of the shameless liar, she also added the ridiculous claim that there would be less overlooking of my back garden from the rear windows of the new buildings than from those of the existing property, even though the new windows would be both higher and closer to the boundary than those existing. The limitations of my computer system prevent me from including a diagram, but if readers draw a rough sketch of their own they will see that higher windows closer to the boundary make a greater degree of overlooking inevitable.

It will be curtains for Briony eventually. Those who sell their soul to the devil in return for the material pleasures of life generally find that the devil cheats them.

The meeting was also attended by Jane Custance, the so-called "Development Control Manager". Whatever she contributes to the Council Tax payer in return for her generous salary, Mrs. Cowardly Custance does not manage to control development.

There followed mimimal discussion among the councillors, led by the appropriately-named Derek Townsend. Councillor Townsend represents a seat in the neighbouring town of Tring, and has previously demonstrated that he has no interest in my home town of Berkhamsted. This spineless curmudgeon insisted on referring to "The hedge - the Privet". As we know, local government officers are never wrong.

Councillor Townsend moved the officer's recommendation, which was seconded by Councillor Restall. (Restall, Day and Doolittle?) Only Councillor Mike Edwards, a man among officers' puppets, voted against granting planning permission. Sadly, Councillor Edwards was later disqualified from office for attending too few council meetings, and was replaced.

A condition of planning consent was that the developer must submit another application for "Reserved matters", dealing with such details as drainage. No such application was published.

At the beginning of 2008, a board from estate agents Cole Flatt and Partners was erected, stating that the house had been sold. The owner admitted that this was not true. The board was duly changed to read "For sale". A neighbour posing as a buyer went to see the owner, who said that he wanted 700,000 for the property with planning permission.

London estate agent Roy Brooks was notoriously honest about the properties he sold. For example, "Grotty flat in fashionable Chelsea. Bathroom overflow makes a pretty waterfall". If Mr. Brooks were selling the property in question, his advertisement might read something like this:

"Shabby, over-priced detached house in neglected garden with mutilated trees. Access via third world road leading to congested and dangerous high street. Drunken yobs entertain on Friday and Saturday nights. Extortionate council tax levied by dishonest and incompetent council. Impossible neighbours".

The house was withdrawn from sale in September 2008, by which time Cole and Flatt were no longer partners. Unsightly hoardings were erected and it was demolished the same month over a two week period.

In December 2008 a new sewer was installed across the site in inconveniently wet conditions. Each time a trench was dug it filled with water and had to be pumped out. The noise and fumes from the pump were unpleasant for the neighbours. Vehicles leaving the site left mud on the newly-resurfaced road. The former garden resembled a battlefield.

On the 17th. December 2008 the pump was left running all night, keeping the neighbours awake all night. I complained to the Police, who referred the matter to Dacorum Borough Council's Environmental Health Department. Environmental Health Officer Iain Newcombe telephoned the developer, but no attempt was made to stop the noise and allow the neighbours to sleep. Nor was any abatement notice was served under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, even though the noise constituted a statutory nuisance.

Dacorum Borough Council's Environmental Health Officers have long declined work and presumed to live on charity from the taxpayer. "If you do not agree with my response", sneered Mr. Newcombe by e-mail, "You can always complain to the council". I did as he suggested, but, despite two reminders to council leader Andrew Williams, the council has made no attempt to deal with my complaint. "Charity Boy" Newcombe knows he has the council leader round his stiff little fingers. It makes me wonder how Councillor Williams can justify the 18,536.70 he took for himself from the taxpayer during the 2008/9 financial year. In a more honest municipal age, council leaders were proud to do a better job for no financial reward.

Some years ago I heard a record entitled "The Magic of Andy Williams". The magic of this Andy Williams is his ability to make taxpayers' money disappear without trace.

The builders duly arrived and, unlike Dacorum Borough Council, made an effort to be considerate. The block was finished in the Summer of 2010 and the three dwellings went on sale for between 425,000 and 475,000.

Berkhamsted Town Council was consulted on a name for the block and decided on "Sherwood Mews". I met the late Ken Sherwood on a number of occasions; he was a gentleman and a local conservationist who did much to save Berkhamsted Town Hall from being demolished in 1974. I consider that naming a building like this after Mr. Sherwood dishonours his memory. Furthermore it is not a mews development - a term usually applied to a former stable, often around a courtyard.

It is not difficult to suggest more appropriate names. "Toodamn Close"? "Hutch Terrace"? "Freemasons' Row"? "Subsidence Close"? "Negative Equity Court"?

Councillor Townsend stood down at the 2011 local elections, so perhaps the block should have been named "Townsend's End".

If Roy Brooks were selling it, he might describe it thus: "Terrace of three over-priced rabbit hutches. Dark. Cramped. Inadequate parking. Extortionate council tax levied by dishonest and incompetent council. Impossible neighbours".

Nevertheless, the three properties were sold, to the kind of families who would pay between 425,000 and 475,000 to live in a rabbit hutch. One of the new neighbours was convicted of a criminal offence and moved on after little more than a year.

The block is now being affected by water penetration through the ground floor. The floors in all three houses have been replaced, but the water is coming in again. The floor is little higher than ground level, in the bottom of a valley. This may have something to do with the European Union's decision to ban doorsteps, as they allegedly discriminate against disabled people. Evidently, the floor is not properly waterproofed.

The occupants of Number 3 demanded that the developer put them up in a hotel while the problem was rectified. The family moved out in December 2012 while extensive work was carried out to the interior by a property refurbishment company and did not return until April 2013. They have now sold their hutch. The residents of Number 2 moved out for several weeks from May 2013 so that their ground floor could be completely replaced. The family living at Number 1 moved out at Christmas 2013 to allow their floor to be re-laid, and did not return until just before Easter 2014.

Considering the footwear which is required indoors, and with the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo occurring in 2015, I propose that the property be renamed "Wellington Terrace".

The leaky floor might not be the only problem. A roofer told me that he did not like the look of the gables. The mortar below the tiles is cracking already. Watch this space!

I forget which letting agency used the line, "If you want an empty flat, see a Derek". I wonder if Ex-Councillor Townsend remembers?

The house and front garden before demolition. Note the hedge to the right. Incompetent (and worse) Planning Officer Jackie Ambrose insists that this is "Privet". Cowardly (and worse) councillors such as Derek Townsend dare not contradict an officer.

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