Warning: selling your home to the Government can seriously damage your wealth as well as your health.

What is worse, it can take up years of your time, involve you in complicated legal matters, cost a fortune and as an individual pitched against the might of the state, drive you to the brink of despair.

David and Sylvia Purnell know all this. Their long dispute with the Department of Transport has all but taken over their lives and cost them dear in every sense. But, unlike many others, they refused to be ground down.

The Purnells bought a Victorian Gothic house at No 73 Burnt Ash Hill, in Lewisham, in 1988. A year later they got a planning permission for a four-bedroom house in the large rear garden. But late in 1989 plans were announced for a big road scheme which blighted the entire area. By February 1990 plans for the road had been scrapped, but the blight went on: the Department of Transport had replaced them with vague 'environmental improvements'. In other words, it was still on the department's book.

More than two years later neither Mr Purnell nor his MP could find out whether or not the house and land would be needed. In March 1992 he decided to serve a legal blight notice on the department to force its hand.

When the department issued what is known as a counter notice, it became legally obliged to buy the property under compulsory purchase rules. Yet nothing happened until, in mid-1992, Mr Purnell wrote to the Citizen's Charter Unit complaining about the lack of progress on the sale of the house. What had been simply frustrating then turned into farce.

First, he received a letter signed by Steven Norris, Minister of State for Transport for London, stating that his officials had advised him that Mr Purnell was not the owner of the land in question. Mr Purnell replied that the Land Registry would prove otherwise.

In July 1992 Mr Norris accepted Mr Purnell's evidence of ownership. The problem then shifted from the house, the value of which was readily accepted, to the adjoining land with its planning permission.

'My expert surveyor considered that the land was worth far more than the Government's Valuation Agency was offering. That dispute should have been settled separately from the house. But in order to pressurise us to accept less for the land, they decided to make our lives difficult.'

On 15 June 1993 the department took possession of the house and changed the locks. But they refused to pay off the mortgage. That meant that, while having to live elsewhere, the Purnells remained liable for the hefty Woolwich mortgage and other expenses for a whole year. The department's explanation was that they could only give Mr Purnell the money required to pay off the mortgage after he had paid off the mortgage himself - Catch 22.

By January 1994 the Woolwich was very concerned. However, instead of demanding the money from the department, which was holding it, the society sued David and Sylvia Purnell.

Mr Justice Millett found the case disturbing. Although the department was not directly a party to the action, the judge went out of his way to criticise its conduct, saying that its refusal to pay the mortgage 'was entirely inconsistent with the purposes' of the law on compensation.

He added that 'Parliament's purpose in conferring a right to the advance payment of compensation upon owners of property, particularly dwelling houses, in the course of compulsory acquisition, was surely to enable them to apply the advance payment in obtaining alternative accommodation.

'That is what Mr and Mrs Purnell did. Having done so, of course, they had insufficient money to discharge the mortgages.

While denying Mr Purnell's accusations, the department has never been able to explain its refusal to pay off his mortgage.

On one occasion it was said that they were 'statute barred from doing so until Mr Purnell had himself cleared the mortgage. But the department's own belated action - it paid the Woolwich direct on 11 April, the day before yet another court hearing was scheduled - proves it was also untrue.

Moreover, the department also had to pay the cost of the unnecessary High Court hearing - another pounds 20,000 of taxpayers' money.

It is now 'looking afresh at its policy towards the making of advance payments, in view of Judge Millett's admonition. It also admitted - although not to the Purnells - that 'the case could have been better handled'.

The Purnells are pleased that their personal trials have at least had this one positive result. But they are also angry and far from satisfied with the outcome. Mrs Purnell has suffered serious damage to her health, which her GP puts down to the severe stress she especially during the Woolwich court action which could have brought them to bankruptcy.

David Purnell is convinced that what has happened was no accident but a deliberate policy to make life as difficult as possible for - and to pay as little compensation as possible to - people whose homes stand in the way of major projects.

Next in line, he warns, are the 8,000 homes along the proposed Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

The ultimate irony is that none of this need have happened. The scheme it was allegedly acquired to make way for has been consigned to never-never land, so the house at Burnt Ash Hill is still there.

A department spokesman admitted it would probably be standin for years.

THE SLOW WAY

15 April 1994 K D Pratt of the Department of Transport writes to David Purnell stating that he will not be receiving some pounds 9,600 of home loss compensation because that money had been used to clear the mortgage debt. Mr Purnell points out that this is illegal.

29 April K D Pratt writes to say that he has 'refreshed his memory' and that the money is indeed to be paid to Mr Purnell as a matter of urgency.

6May Mr Purnell queries why no money has been received. No reply.

9 May Mr Purnell phones. Mr Pratt is surprised money has not arrived, saying it was paid direct into the Purnell account as the post is not considered safe. Mr Purnell established nothing has been paid into his account. Mr Pratt says he has inquired and a cheque had been posted after all - from DVLA Swansea - the previous week.

10 May Cheque not received. Mr Purnell offers to go and collect it personally.

11 May Letter received from a Mr Wilding, who says he has found out that the cheque was to be issued that day. It would, however, go second class as it was for less than pounds 10,000.

Friday 13 May Cheque received, having been sent from Hemel Hempstead, second class, on 10 May.

(Photographs omitted)

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