PROPERTY / Driven up the wall by him next door: One man's post-modernist garden is another's eyesore. With neighbourly disputes on the increase, Caroline McGhie offers advice about legal remedies available to homeowners

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The Independent Culture
ANDY Pacino is into gas-cooker art. That is to say he has hung (with great care and difficulty) a 1970s gas cooker on the outside wall of the three-bedroom semi he rents in a respectable suburb of Manchester. It dangles some eight feet off the ground, in a manner which is pleasing to him, if less so to his neighbours.

Though to him it may be art, it has driven the neighbours of Partington up the wall, so to speak. 'Oh Blimey,' says Pacino. 'They became apoplectic. They think I am doing it to wind them up but I'm not. I just think it is really nice.' His voice is scarcely audible above the rock music reverberating around his house with all the force of a discotheque.

Pacino, who is the singer in a band called Lloyd Almighty, is unabashed. 'We heard the council was going to come out to have the cooker removed, so we found out what our rights were and they can't really stop us.'

The garden, too, is an expression of Pacino's post-modernist principles. Herbaceous borders are out, car ponds are in. An old Vauxhall nestles in a hole five feet deep. 'I had this car which wasn't going,' he says, 'so I dug a hole and got a crane and put it in.' The installation is becoming quite a tourist attraction.

In Andy Pacino's view, the neighbourhood is full of little old ladies who badger him about it. One even sent round a scrap-metal merchant who offered to make off with the objet d'ump. If they knew that he plans to cover the side of the house with model frogmen made of chicken wire and latex, who knows where their despair might lead them.

Comedy and tragedy lurk in every neighbourhood disagreement. There is nothing like an irritating neighbour to bring out the worst in us, to make us suspend rational behaviour and lead us mercilessly into the realms of the absurd. Sadly, as the home ownership stakes were raised during the Eighties, the potential for neighbourly disputes increased dramatically. Old were shuffled together with young, townies with country folk.

From suburban street to picturesque village, the tragicomic arguments unfold. And as events move out of the parlour and into the hands of the councils or the courts, so the warring neighbours have to cope with the pressures of the public stage.

In the last 18 months, there has been a litany of celebrated disputes. There was the woman who sprayed her neighbours' barbecue with a hosepipe, then danced defiantly for the video camera when they started to film the evidence. Then there was the Oxford parrot-strangler who took the law into his own hands when the wolf whistles and lewd comments from his neighbour's parrot became more than he could bear. He was heavily fined.

But the most famous bird of all is probably Corky the cockerel, whose heralding of the dawn so upset one incomer in the North Devon village of Stoke that the bird's owner was taken to court. Corky was initially ordered by the court to keep his voice down between 10pm and 7am, but was given full throat again after an appeal. The dispute continues.

Sometimes events take an awful twist and lead to tragedy. Last summer, a pensioner was so upset by the rude names the little boy next door kept calling his wife, and so enraged by the ensuing argument, that he killed the boy's stepfather with a billhook. One woman disguised herself as a man, then posted petrol and lighted newspapers through the letter box of neighbours whose barking terrier had driven her to distraction. The husband and children were saved from the fire, but the wife died.

Disputes between neighbours are on the increase, particularly on council estates and housing association developments, where people probably feel more trapped by circumstances than they do in private housing. A new report, Neighbour Disputes - Response By Local Authorities and Housing Associations, being published by the Institute of Housing this week, recommends that our approach to the problem should be thoroughly revised.

Co-writer Rachel Lickiss, of Salford University, says some tenants had to tolerate horrific neighbour problems associated with drugs, drunkenness and noise, but that they were too afraid of retaliation to complain. 'Most organisations seem to leave it to people to sort out their own disputes. So those who are suffering tend to feel that their complaints won't be dealt with anyway, and that they will be found out by their neighbours if they do complain.'

The report advises housing bodies to intervene much more quickly, to encourage mediation, to show more willingness to use the raft of legal remedies available, and to guarantee confidentiality to those who make complaints. In February this year Manchester City Council's housing department launched a Neighbour Nuisance Strategy along these lines, taking on extra staff in the legal department to handle the anticipated injunctions and evictions. The scheme is thought to be working well.

The increase in complaints is astonishingly high in a city such as Oxford, where student and council-estate high jinks keep the curtains twitching. Tony Payne, principal environmental health officer, reports that the number of complaints he receives annually has risen from 380 in 1985 to nearly 2,000 in 1992. Why? 'People are able to make more noise than they used to. Hi-fi speakers have become more powerful, and their price has fallen,' he says.

When a complaint comes in, he sends a standard letter to notify the offending neighbour. Then a diary sheet is sent to the complainant to fill in dates, times, the nature of the problem and - most important of all - the effect it has on him or her. In order to constitute a nuisance there has to be some personal discomfort caused. Noise is difficult to assess because the discomfort depends on its tonal quality, and tape recordings have to be properly calibrated if they are to be used as evidence.

If the problem continues, then an environmental health officer visits both parties and tries to witness the nuisance. If it is a statutory offence, an abatement notice can be served. If this is flouted, then the council is in a position to prosecute. Alternatively, individuals can take out a private action.

At Oxford an officer is on duty 24 hours a day to respond to noisy gatherings and other forms of nuisance. 'There are the most horrendous parties - full-blown disco systems with speakers the size of sofas and a disc jockey, all crammed into a maisonette. You can hear the noise half-way down the street at two or three in the morning. All the lights are on in the street and everyone is in their dressing gowns on their doorsteps because nobody can sleep.'

Territorial disputes are another common cause of complaint. Ken Dijksman, who has just published Planning Permission: The Essential Guide For Homeowners (Courtland Books pounds 9.95), says most people have no idea how much their neighbours can tamper with their properties without having to get planning permission. 'They can build extensions up to four metres (13 feet) high up to the boundary,' he says, 'or two storeys high to within two metres of the boundary. Or they can enclose half their garden with outbuildings - all without planning permission.' Or their neighbour's.

As a planner Dijksman is often drawn in to advise. 'There is an astonishing amount of freedom,' he says. 'You can mend cars in your garage and you can also mend a relative's car. There is a thin line between car maintenance and running a business. In planning terms, it all comes down to fact and degree. It all gets very petty, and often the richest people are the least tolerant. And the elderly, who often don't have much to do apart from watch the neighbours.'

Dijksman himself lives in a terrace house, and tells the story of a neighbour whom he refers to as Dave-Next-Door. Dave gutted the house with the intention of doing it up, but he has now filled it with DSS lodgers who play loud music. Worse, he has moved in with the woman who lives on the other side of Dijksman - and has started gutting her house too, with the same good intentions. 'So we now have Dave-Next-Door on both sides. On one side he is hammering away, and on the other side the music is hammering away. He suffers from excessive optimism, that's the problem.'

Most of us have probably had neighbourly disputes of one kind or another. A friend who moved to Dorset found himself locked in combat with a neighbour who hated being looked at. So he triumphantly planted a regiment of sunflowers so that their large, yellow bobbing heads could keep permanent watch on the neighbour's kitchen window. Such is the sweetness of petty revenge. Other friends were unsettled by a disgruntled neighbour who mounted dolls' heads on poles in his garden and ostentatiously walked around with a book about the Mafia under his arm.

And what of the story I was told of the man in Clapham who habitually flashes from the upstairs windows at women in the houses opposite? This they can take. It is when he urinates from the roof in the middle of the night that they object. But I must confess that we too have flashed at our neighbours, albeit unknowingly. The depth of the light shaft into our bedroom has apparently long given those opposite a grandstand view. Only now do they inform us, as they are moving out, that they've referred to us for years as The Bare Bottoms.

YOUR RIGHTS AND THEIR WRONGS

NOISE: The most common complaint. Negotiate with your neighbour before you start to boil over, and try to find a compromise. If this fails you can complain to the local council's environmental health office. Keep a noise diary. Some councils have noisy party patrols who will come out in the middle of the night. All have the power to forbid or restrict the noise, providing it is causing real discomfort. You can also take a civil action against your neighbour, but take advice first - Citizen's Advice Bureaux often help. A free booklet entitled Bothered By Noise? What You Can Do About It is available from the Department of the Environment, PO Box 151, London E15 2HF.

LIGHT: There is an ancient right to light, but it is not enshrined in modern planning law. Broadly speaking, for your complaint to stand up you have to prove that you have too little light to enjoy your property.

SMELLS: These can be investigated in the same way as noise, but they are harder to evaluate.

SMOKE: No bonfires are allowed in smokeless zones. In other areas it doesn't matter what time of day they are lit, but if they are too frequent, too close, or consistently smoke out the washing line, they may constitute a nuisance in the eyes of the council.

TREES: Encroaching branches from your neighbour's trees can be lopped, but you should offer them back because technically they remain your neighbour's property. If the tree roots are causing damage to your house, then you may be able to sue for compensation. But if your neighbour has made an effort to cut the tree back, your case is likely to collapse.

BOUNDARIES: The title deeds of your house should reveal who owns what. Boundary hedges tend to be a shared responsibility. You can erect a fence up to one metre high facing a road or up to two metres elsewhere on your property.

EXTENSIONS: They shouldn't increase the volume of a terrace house by more than 50 cubic metres or 10 per cent, or any other type of house by more than 70 cubic metres or 15 per cent. They should not cover more than half the garden, or come within two metres of the boundary unless the height is less than four metres. You can complain if a new extension overlooks you too much.

OUTBUILDINGS: They don't require planning permission as long as they are five metres from the house. But they shouldn't cover more than half the garden and shouldn't be higher than three metres (with a flat roof) or four metres (with a pitched roof).

SATELLITE DISHES: Only one dish, under 90 centimetres in diameter, is allowed without planning permission.

HARD STANDINGS: The real betes noires of the middle classes - but unstoppable. People can turn their front gardens into parking spaces if they really want to, or even smother their entire gardens in concrete.

(Photograph omitted)

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