Home extension nearly toppled by planning mix-up: While one council office was approving the work, another was preparing an order for the family to tear it down

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LIKE many homeowners, David and Melanie Meadowcroft have been unable to find a buyer for their two-bedroom semi so that they can trade up and have more space for their young children, Amy and Luke.

'We tried on and off for three years to sell - but the slump in the property market meant that this was simply not possible,' said Mrs Meadowcroft.

Instead they decided to spend pounds 20,000 on adding a two-storey rear extension to their home in Greenwich, south-east London. It seemed an obvious solution to their space problem, and permission for the work had apparently already been granted on an earlier joint planning application co-ordinated by a neighbour.

Building Control staff from the London Borough of Greenwich offered helpful advice on minor changes to the plans and visited the site a number of times to approve the work as the building proceeded. It was only when the new extension had reached roof-height that the Meadowcrofts found they had a problem: the authority abruptly informed them that the existing planning permission did not cover the work they had undertaken.

'I discovered that the people we had been dealing with in the planning department were concerned with building regulations and not town planning,' said Mrs Meadowcroft.

'We were never told that there was another section in the same department that we should also see.'

The bureaucratic muddle turned into a nightmare when the Meadowcrofts' application for retrospective permission was turned down and the council served them with an enforcement order. The extension, they were told, must be demolished.

According to Ruth Richards of Planning Aid for London, an advisory service, the Meadowcrofts fell victim to a common mistake. 'We've had very many cases of people getting building regulations approval rather than planning permission - and not understanding the difference. Council departments often do not liaise with each other,' she said.

She added that other home improvements popular with people who find they are unable to move house, such as loft conversions and porches, can also fall foul of the local planning system.

'People operating businesses from home can attract enforcement problems, too,' she said. 'The best advice is always to check with the local authority about what you intend to do.'

However, this is what the Meadowcrofts tried to do, said Phillip Ware, a planning consultant who works as a volunteer adviser with Planning Aid. 'They did everything they could reasonably have been expected to do.'

One problem, he said, is the complicated nature of planning rules at present: for example, extensions may or may not need planning permission, depending on such factors as size and height, the size of the original house, distance to the property boundary, and whether the house is a listed building or in a conservation area.

'When you have regulations as complex as that, mistakes are bound to arise,' he said.

Non-compliance with a local authority enforcement notice is potentially an offence which can lead to Magistrates' Court and fines of up to pounds 2,000 a day.

Enforcement notices are also transferred to new owners, a point not always understood by the buyer of a property. If a house has obvious recent additions, Ruth Richards advises buyers to check whether planning permission was necessary - and, if so, was granted.

'Buyers need to take this initiative. Their solicitor probably won't have seen the house and won't know whether an extension is new or not,' she said.

The powers of a council to take enforcement action over work that was not authorised normally lapse after four years. However, for the work to become lawful as opposed to simply exempt from action, it is necessary to apply for a Certificate of Lawful Development.

Melanie Meadowcroft said the encounter with the planning laws was a dreadful experience. 'It put our marriage and family life under terrible stress,' she said. 'All our savings went into the building of the extension.'

In their case, the story has ended satisfactorily. They appealed against the council's decision and a few weeks ago heard that the DoE inspector had ruled in their favour. It means the investment they made in their house was not wasted money - and that Luke can keep his new bedroom.

A new booklet on enforcement procedures, 'You Can't Do That', is published next month by Planning Aid for London, 5 Calvert Ave, London E2 7JP.

(Photograph omitted)