Property: We marshalled eight families for a council of war

Daniel Butler on defeating the planning agents
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The Independent Online
Imagine the horror: a letter arrives one beautiful May morning informing you that a developer wants to plonk 20 caravans next to your isolated dream home. Escaping from neighbours was one of the main reasons for our purchasing a Welsh smallholding, three miles from the nearest town. Now suddenly a small village of transient tourists might be planted 50 yards from our front door.

Not that the idea came completely out of the blue. Our surveyor had warned us planning permission had once been granted for chalets on the adjacent field. Consent had lapsed long before we arrived, however, and the ludicrous development costs convinced us it could never go ahead. Now the possibility was here to haunt us again - this time scaled down to a more affordable (but equally unacceptable) scheme.

We sat staring at the letter in a state of disbelief. Once the immediate shock had passed, we rallied ourselves. Along with its clinical description of the scheme, the letter invited us to talk to the planning officer. I phoned immediately and found him extremely helpful. He explained that even though this scheme would not have been passed were it an original idea, the fact that consent had once been granted tied his hands. As an amended plan it could only be turned down on the hardest of pragmatic grounds. He also warned us that legally his brief was to "facilitate development wherever possible" and it was not for him to find stumbling blocks.

The public file didn't tell us much, but it was clear that even in the Eighties the planners had been worried about access and had insisted on the construction of a mile of new road - although there was no mention of this in the new plans. There were also inaccuracies - such as claiming the availability of mains water - and a vague mention of septic tanks, even though these were specifically barred in the original scheme.

We marshalled eight neighbouring families for a council of war and invited along local councillors. To our dismay we found the strong opposition was tempered with large doses of resignation: "Money talks in Wales," muttered one. "And money is something they must surely have."

Talking the issue through, however, we gathered further useful snippets of local gossip about water courses, badger runs and rights of way. Armed with this and our researches at the planning office, everyone was urged to write in stressing practical reasons why the development should not go ahead. Picking up on the planners' own concerns, we would stress the question of access. Within a week the surprised planning department was deluged with complaints.

The critical weapon in our armoury proved the new access road. By carefully analysing the route, we discovered that consent from four local landowners was needed - but there was no mention of this in the confident wording of the plans. Remembering the council has to accept an application at face value unless concrete information to the contrary is available, we fired off another barrage of letters.

As a result, the planning officer wrote to the developer asking for documentary evidence that the access road could really be built. Crucially it was at this stage that he demanded official consent forms signed by the landowners - something which would inevitably force the developers to begin forking out serious money.

That was August. Suddenly everything seemed to go into cold storage while we waited for news. For four months we held our breath, wondering if they would find enough money to buy off our farmers. In spite of the solidity of popular opposition, we were worried "every man has his price".

And then came the good news - the plans were being "withdrawn" while alternative access was considered. It appeared that at least one of the landowners had held firm and refused to sell. This was tempered by the knowledge that at least technically the plans were only shelved and might be re-submitted at any moment. With our new found understanding of the planning laws, we knew this would mean the fight could pick up where it had begun - the 1988 precedent was still there.

Lessons have been learned, however, and we are confident that we would be able to defeat developers again with letters and attention to the minutiae of planning detail.

Fortunately it may not come to this: a local farmer has been asked if he is interested in purchasing the site by the developer. No doubt the asking price will be well above its agricultural value, but while none of us wants five acres of scrappy pasture with no water supply, it just could be worth it. Even at double the market value, after six months of sleepless nights and hours wasted in the planning department, pounds 7,500 suddenly doesn't seem so steep for peace of mind.

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