Signs of Unfairness

Dacorum's Selective Attitude to the Enforcement of Planning Law

(One Law for the Rich ...)

Mr. Foisol Ahmed is the proprietor of the Akash Restaurant in Berkhamsted. He is the purveyor of an extremely good curry. English is not his first language and his skin is not white.

Mr. David Woollacott is a local craftsman and sign writer, who has a shop in Gossoms End High Street.

Both Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Woollacott erected shop signs without planning permission. Dacorum Borough Council's Planning Enforcement Officers demanded that the signs be taken down, and threatened to prosecute if Messrs. Ahmed and Woollacott refused to comply. The fines for non-compliance are heavy: up to 1000 plus 100 for every subsequent day that the signs remain in place. Mr. Ahmed applied for retrospective planning permission, but this was refused. Mr. Woollacott was told that he was unlikely to get retrospective permission for his sign. Nevertheless, both signs are still standing, more than four years after they were erected. As far as I am aware, no fines were imposed.

Dacorum's enforcers are legally entitled to take this action, although they tend to bark rather than bite. Unfortunately, their hard line bark at small, locally-based businesses contrasts with their pussycat attitude to wealthier companies trading in the town.

When Waitrose built its new store it closed a public right of way without permission. Known as Footpath 27, this was technically a Byway Open to All Traffic (BOAT), where vehicular access was allowed in both directions. Its former route now passes through the Waitrose car park, which only Waitrose customers are allowed to use. Anyone who tries to drive through without producing a till receipt issued by Waitrose during the previous two hours is charged.

In order to make more room for its customers' cars, Waitrose illegally re-routed the River Bulbourne. As a condition of the planning permission for the new store, it was required to maintain the planting on the river bank. It has failed to do this.

These breaches of planning law have been reported to Dacorum's enforcement officers, who have decided to turn a blind eye. The National Rivers Authority, now part of the Environment agency, has been informed about the re-routing of the river. Likewise, the Department of Transport and the Environment has been told about the closure of Footpath 27. There has been no response from these organisations, either.

The Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, which owns Waitrose, is Stuart Hampson. The Director of the Environment Agency with responsibility for the Thames and Chilterns District is called Chris Hampson. They are a similar age and have a facial resemblance. Could they be brothers, perhaps?

Goddens Butchers in Berkhamsted High Street was one of the first local shops to close after the new Waitrose store opened. The original shopfront was intact, as was the Victorian paydesk inside. The walls were still covered in Royal Doulton tiles from the same era.

Councillor Lindy Foster-Weinreb, who then chaired Berkhamsted Town Council's Town Planning Committee and has a degree in the history of architecture and art, spoke to Dacorum's Director of Planning at the time, Colin Barnard. She was given a verbal assurance that the historic features of the shop would be preserved. Some weeks later, Councillor Foster walked past the shop, only to see the paydesk being smashed with a sledgehammer. The tiles had been cracked with a hammer, and were being covered with plasterboard. The shopfront was then demolished, and a modern one, completely out of character with the property, was put in.

The new occupant, a franchisee of the multi-national Benetton group, was very surprised when Councillor Foster-Weinreb contacted him. He had had no idea of the historic importance of the shop. Despite their worthless promises, Dacorum's officers had not bothered to contact him.

Dacorum could have prosecuted the shop's owner for these flagrant breaches of planning law, and insisted that it be restored to its original condition. Instead, the Borough Council gave retrospective permission for the alterations. Planning officers even admitted to the owner that he would not have been given planning permission had he applied before committing the destruction.

Subsequently, local singer Lisa Faye and her partner were threatened with enforcement action for building a garage on their property, even though their neighbour had erected a very similar one some time previously. Councillor Foster-Weinreb helped them to devise some timber cladding which satisfied the planning officers, but not before a great deal of worry had been caused.

So much for the town planning system. When it is administered by a Borough Council like Dacorum, it descends into a farce.

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Copyright © 2003 - Ian Johnston
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