This Will Set Neighbour Against Neighbour
Planning rules that are a recipe for disputes
The Daily Telegraph
September 12, 2008
By Clive Aslet
Remember the leylandii? In the 1990s, the hyperactive arboreal thug caused such friction between neighbours that a pressure group, Hedgeline, was formed to help victims of "hedge abuse''. One feud across the front lawn ended in murder and suicide.
Well, the Government's new rules on loft conversions and rear extensions, coming into force next month, will knock the monstrous conifer into a cocked hat.
Nothing causes otherwise sane householders to foam at the mouth more than perceived threats to the sanctity of their home. The clang of scaffolding poles (should that be Poles?) that is the prelude to building work is to many the harbinger of doom. You know you'll be suffering months of noise and disruption, for the sake of something you didn't want, can't avoid and which may well tower over your garden.
The man who arrives home to find that his neighbour has erected a garage on land across which he used to tow his caravan to the back garden sees red. Already these things happen. To staunch the flow of outwardly trivial - but to the participants, intensely emotional - cases reaching court, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors runs a dispute resolution service. According to Martin Burns, its head, the numbers it deals with are rising. To ministers of the Crown, whose domestic arrangements are made comfortable by the John Lewis list, new kitchens and children's bedrooms may be beneath consideration. But my goodness, expect fireworks in Acacia Avenue, and not just on bonfire night.
It is easy to see why the Government has acted. The planning system is gummed up with applications for minor works. As many as one in five of us is busy creating more bedrooms in the loft or elsewhere, according to a recent survey. A standard application takes months to process. The number of applications has doubled in the past decade. Expect more building work now that the credit crunch has stopped people moving home.
Of course, home improvement is nothing new. Since Cheddar Man dug out his cave 9,000 years ago, dwellings have been remodelled to suit changing circumstances, or simply fashion: look at the Georgian façades in towns like Faversham, Kent, which are no more than one brick deep; behind them is a much older, timber-framed hall.
But historically the nature of ownership kept a lid on the craze. When most people rented their homes, they had no reason to spend money making them bigger. They squashed into what spaces they could - servants in Victorian houses often slept on pull-out beds that had to be put away during the day. Landlords insisted that leaseholders maintained standards, and suppressed wayward individuality.
When home ownership became general, so did customisation. Margaret Thatcher's right-to-buy liberated council houses from local authorities and brought with it carriage lamps, stone cladding and ruched blinds. These were gestures of defiance, from people previously denied freedom to choose their bathroom fittings.
The romping property market of the late Nineties brought another motive into play. With house prices going through the roof, it seemed only sensible to convert the loft or add a conservatory; you were not only updating your home, in line with Peter Mandelson minimalism, but pumping up the value.
Everyone was at it. One builder, rectifying a damp patch in our basement, would be full of tales of marble wet-rooms he was installing in the smarter parts of London. Banker types routinely had their houses gutted: floors would be removed, swimming pools installed. "Once, what people could do was limited by the length of a timber beam,'' sighs the architect Ptolemy Dean. "Now modern materials make anything possible.''
His octogenarian uncle suffered 18 months of misery while his neighbours on one side dug out their basement, only for the other side to begin once they had finished. "It ruined his life for more than three years.''
Don't get me wrong: homes must be allowed to evolve. When we are finding it difficult to build enough new houses, it would be crazy to put the housing stock into aspic. Nor do I want to disparage the sentiment behind Gordon Brown's seemingly counter-cultural effort to get some bureaucracy out of our lives.
For a Government which has done nothing but increase snooping and interference, it seems a miracle that it should want to ease up on planning.
But a free-for-all isn't the answer. At present, disputes are prevented because both sides know that qualified planning officers are holding the ring. Chances to make representations vent steam. But planning is not a well-rewarded profession: pay for top-quality officers, give them more training, and backlogs may start to subside.
Or developers could take a leaf out of the Prince of Wales's book at Poundbury. A system of covenants means that alterations must conform to strict building codes. It has proved popular. Householders accept the restrictions that this places upon their own ambitions to build, because they know that they in turn will be protected from the ultimate horror: hideous additions by neighbours.