Showdown at the Battle of Dark Lane: A bitter row over three barns in a Cheshire village may have far-reaching planning implications. Peter Dunn investigates

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Higher Whitley on the Cheshire plain seems an unlikely focus for the deliberations of the European Court of Human Rights. A house- proud village preening itself in the mirror-surface of a broad duck pond, its residents - including prominent media folk who commute to Manchester 20 miles away - pride themselves on keeping up rural appearances at all costs. 'A bee can't fly backwards in Whitley without planning permission,' says one resident.

But in Higher Whitley, rural tranquillity is an illusion. A four- year planning battle over three brick barns, built in a field off Dark Lane, ended last month in the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Lawyers for John Bryan, 64, a retired scrap metal merchant who built the barns for his shire horses, argued that the British planning system breached his civil rights.

In a landmark decision reached on 14 October, 17 judges ruled unanimously that British law - which refused Mr Bryan a right of appeal in the High Court against an adverse public inquiry decision - breached Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This states that before there is any interference with personal property an individual should have the right to plead his case before an independent judiciary.

The Battle of Dark Lane was, on the face of it, an everyday story of villagers versus a determined adversary whose love of shire horses is matched only by a determination to defend his rights. Some villagers say they find him intimidating. Three years ago Mr Bryan was fined pounds 10,000 and had his sporting guns confiscated by police after threatening over the phone to kill a business associate.

In 1989 he built the first two (of three) barns at Dark Lane, copying the vernacular style of traditional Cheshire barns. Planners at Vale Royal Borough Council thought they looked suspiciously like an unauthorised housing estate and ordered him to pull them down. In October 1990 he lost an appeal against the demolition order at a public inquiry. When he found there was no recourse to the High Court against the decision, he took his case to Strasbourg.

The fact that British law does not recognise the European Convention on Human Rights, despite recent pleas from Lord Chief Justice Taylor to incorporate it into English law, does not deter Mr Bryan in his hour of triumph.

'This'll turn the English planning system upside down,' he gloats. 'When I lost my public inquiry, I went to a High Court judge and he said, 'I can't give you a judicial hearing because the Inspector's more or less God'. The Inspector was king; now I've dethroned him. There's no further use for planning committees. They're all amateurs. I can only see professional people and judges giving decisions in the future. We'll have to have a new set of rules for planning.

'I'm not bothered about what some folk think in Whitley. The old villagers, local people who've lived there all their lives, are all right. But others come into the village, jack up the prices and then form committees and take command. They like to think that the grass can't grow without their say so.'

Higher Whitley is horrified by the news from Strasbourg. Its prominent residents include Tony Ingham, a PR man who worked on Manchester's bid for the Olympics and his wife, Susie Mathis, a broadcaster for the Manchester radio station Piccadilly Gold.

'You've got to put him in context,' Mr Ingham says of Mr Bryan. 'He's not a farmer. He's an obnoxious fellow who's determined to build property in a landfill area. And we've tried to block him despite all his antics.'

'It's the beginning of the end of rural life, isn't it?', Ms Mathis says. 'God help any country with people like him in it. What's the point of fighting to save the place we love if a court thousands of miles away can rule in his favour? What about our human rights? That development of his is absolute bollocks, not barns.'

'All I built was barns, with permitted development, in the vernacular style copied from old Cheshire barns,' Mr Bryan counters. 'When I'd finished two of them I got a demolition order saying they weren't designed for the purposes of agriculture and then the Inspector said they had to come down.

'We'd asked Vale Royal to leave the barns up until the outcome of Strasbourg, but the answer was 'No'. On the day they were doing it I was very distraught. They had two armed policemen there because that fellow (Albert Dryden) with the illegal bungalow had just shot and killed a planning officer in the north-east.'

The Strasbourg judges have now decreed that the feuding parties should seek a 'friendly settlement' to their dispute before the European legal process grinds on to its next stage. This seems unlikely. On 19 November Vale Royal Borough Council is taking Mr Bryan to Chester Crown Court for failing to comply with a public inquiry order to demolish the remaining barn.

Mark Fisher, the council's senior solicitor, says: 'We understand Mr Bryan's counsel will request an adjournment on the basis that the whole thing is in the air after Strasbourg and will want to wait and see what comes of it all. The council will oppose that, taking the view that we're interpreting British laws unless or until they're changed.'

Mr Bryan, meanwhile, says he will refuse to pay the pounds 6,000 costs for demolishing his first two barns and will be seeking compensation for his own costs of pounds 170,000. His solicitor, Tim Napier, has drafted a letter to the council announcing Mr Bryan's intention to re-erect the barns at Dark Lane, 'which in the light of the decision of the (Strasbourg) court he regards as having been demolished illegally.'

'What needs to be done now is to put matters right with a new Act of Parliament, a Town and Country Planning Act 1994,' Mr Napier says. 'The Strasbourg decision means that anyone with a grievance who's exhausted their domestic remedy here has a right to lodge a similar application with the Court of Human Rights. Having got this decision we could mass-produce applications to Strasbourg. Eventually the Government would have to give way.'

'What he's done worries me enormously', Mr Ingham says. 'It ought to worry the Government, too. What he's doing isn't supposed to be allowed, but he's done it and this could happen throughout the country. I don't think our local council can take on Strasbourg; the Government's got to get involved before anyone can build just what they like.'

(Photograph omitted)