Oxfordshire fires: Did planning row send local council headquarters up in smoke?

A 47-year-old man has been arrested after several buildings were attacked

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The Independent Online

Detectives are investigating if an embittered arsonist nursing a long-standing grudge over a planning application was behind a spate of firebomb attacks that gutted a council headquarters.

Police arrested a 47-year-old man, named locally as a scrap metal dealer, after a car loaded with gas canisters was reported to have been crashed into the Oxfordshire headquarters of the local council and set alight.

The fire was thought to have been put out but part of the roof reignited this evening, fanned by gale force winds. It is believed the wind turned over loose, smoldering material.

 

Further attacks were carried out at a funeral parlour next door – and two miles away at the home of an 80-year-old woman, who managed to flee from the burning building.

Another cottage close by was also thought to have been targeted. The man was later arrested near the cottages.

Police sources said that the arsonist clearly “knew how to light a fire” and suggested that all of the buildings had been deliberately targeted.

Attention centred on the theory that the spree could have been linked to a planning dispute.

Council leader John Cotton, speaking at the scene of the main blaze, said the planning department had “pretty much disappeared” in the attack.

Council documents indicated that planning permission had been granted for the knocking down of disused agricultural buildings close to the site of the cottage attack in the sleepy village of Roke Marsh. The plans involved building a detached four-bedroom home in its place.

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Fire crews were called out to tackle three major fires, including one at a funeral parlour (PA)

The village was sealed off today and the state of the development was unclear. Neighbours spoke of their shock at the attack, in an area previously best known as the filming location of the television series Midsomer Murders. More than 30 people were taken from their houses to the village hall as fire crews dampened flames. An Army bomb disposal team from the Royal Logistics Corps was deployed in what police described as a “precautionary measure” as they searched the suspect’s home.

One resident, who did not want to be named, said that the 80-year-old woman whose house had been targeted in the village was “a sweet old lady who wouldn’t hurt a fly”. He added: “I can’t imagine why anybody would target her.”

Thames Valley Police said they found gas canisters at three of the sites, which were targeted within 10 minutes shortly after 3am.

The man named by locals as having been arrested was said to have been deeply affected by the death of his elderly mother at the end of 2013. Her funeral was carried out by the family-run Howard Chadwick funeral directors, which was one of the targets of the attack and was next door to the council offices in Crowmarsh Gifford.

The parlour’s co-owner Alistair Cox had said that he believed the attack was a case of “mistaken identity” because it was so close to the council officers. But police sources later indicated that they were all carefully targeted attacks.

Mr Cox, 43, said his 73-year-old father, who lives next door to the parlour, was woken up around 3am by the blaze at the parlour and saw the arsonist’s vehicle speeding off towards the council building less than 100 metres away, which was itself soon engulfed in flames. “We were on the scene quickly and tackled it with fire extinguishers before the fire brigade put it out,” he said. “It looks like the bloke that did it threw a gas canister through the front window.” Mr Cox added that bodies at the funeral parlour were safe at the rear of the property in a “fire-sealed room”.

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Sandra Chadwick, a worker at the parlour, battled the flames in her nightwear. “We can assure everyone that their loved ones are safe and we’ve carried on with two funerals today without disruption.”

John Cotton, the leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, which shares the offices with the Vale of White Horse District Council, said that planning and tax records were likely to have gone up in smoke.

Smoke was still billowing from the scene mid-morning as structural engineers attempted to assess the damage. Witness Adam Beasley told Sky News: “My mother said it was like a bomb. Then very quickly the police were on the scene. It’s plainly an attack involving gas canisters, which would be like a bomb going off when it exploded.”

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