Property: When the neighbours have bad taste

Despite planning regulations, it is still surprisingly easy to create an eyesore. Fiona Brandhorst surveys the neighbourhood.

It's a bit like playing with a Fifties-style Bako Build set: take out the sash windows, replace with a Georgian bay complete with bull's-eyes, cover the bricks with pebbledash and insert a couple of Doric pillars under a porch. Look in any street, and you'll find a so-called "home improvement" that is unsympathetic to its environment.

Unfortunately, one person's eyesore is another's pride and joy and there is little to stop anyone from giving a property its own stamp of individuality.

Fancy painting your house lime green with pink windowsills, or growing giant cacti in the garden? Go ahead. If you don't live in a conservation, trust or covenanted area, planning permission will probably not be required.

However, some local authorities have learnt a lesson from the home improvement legacies of the past 30 years. Bromley, the largest of the London boroughs, is so concerned that it has produced a leaflet, Conservation Begins at Home, warning that misguided home improvements can damage the appearance and value of your house. Robin Cooper, head of Heritage and Urban Design for Bromley, is thankful that the "stick-on bricks era" is over (should you still hanker after stone cladding, it now requires planning permission). "Some people have spent a lot of money altering their properties," says Mr Cooper. "However, if the character of the house changes, this can mean that the resale value drops."

Local authorities have limited powers to deal with complaints from residents. Gardens constantly littered with old furniture or bits of cars can be served with untidy site notices, but the response may be slow. Most of us suffer a blot on the landscape for the sake of good relations with our neighbours, but if you're unlucky enough to live next door to an uninhabited eyesore - there are 764,000 empty homes in England and Wales - you could be in for a long wait before action is taken.

Incensed by the inability of a house owner to respond to repeated calls to attend to her deteriorating empty property, Reading Council recently took the unprecedented step of naming her publicly. For almost 12 years, Gillian Murdoch's former council house in Lamerton Road has stood empty, attracting squatters, rubbish dumping, burglars, arsonists, drug addicts and rats. Even the building society with a call over the property did not know it was empty; the mortgage was still being paid. The council has now removed the rats, but is concerned that it will incur further costs if the house is not brought back into use; most empty properties are exempt from council tax. Mark Adlington, a neighbour, is angry that the property has been allowed to rot. "It's a danger to public health as well as an eyesore," says Mr Adlington, who has personally removed hypodermic syringes from the garden to protect local children . "It's a scandal that it stands empty when there are so many homeless people."

The scale of the problem led, last month, to the launch of the London Empty Homes Hotline, prompting hundreds of calls from the public. The manager, Erinn Buchanan, says the quality of information varies. "Some people don't know the number of the house or even the street; others know the whole history of the property, including the mortgage holder. We even have calls from estate agents wanting to know where these empty houses are. Of course, the information is data protected." In fact, a massive 41 per cent of homes become empty because of the death or long-term illness of the occupier. Government figures suggest that repossessions and evictions account for 10 per cent of empty homes. Around 19 per cent of calls to the hotline are from the owners themselves, uncertain how to deal with their empty property.

They are told about the options available, including assistance from housing associations to bring the property back into use; they, in turn, will manage and let the property for the owner until they decide to sell.

In extreme cases, however, when all attempts to trace an owner have been made, a council may compulsorily purchase a property. Lewisham Council in south London has spent several years tracing the owner of a large Victorian house, empty for 15 years and subjected to fires, fly-tipping and vandalism. The council now believes the owner was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, and has enforced a statutory charge against it to sell the house at auction. From the proceeds, the council will recover any costs incurred. If the owner is unknown, the balance will be lodged with the Treasury and can be claimed by a relative at any time, subject to 40 per cent death duty.

Mark Baker, development control officer for Bromley, says that with limited resources the borough has to be "reactive" rather than pro-active, relying on residents to tell the council of any problems. "We only have four enforcement officers covering 3,500 roads over 60 square miles," he adds.

From my Victorian house with its inherited "Georgian improvements", I look at the timber-clad property opposite, affectionately known as "the shed". Its only permanent residents for the past five years have been a rapidly breeding colony of pigeons. So far the council has been unable to get any reply from the absent owner. But in the grand scheme of things, it's early days - I could still be looking at my feathered friends in 10 years' time.

Bromley Planning Enquiries 0181-313 4956; Reading Borough Council 0118 939 0900; London Empty Homes Hotline 0870 901 6303; Empty Homes Agency 0171-828 6288; Royal Town Planning Institute 0171-636 9107; English Heritage 0171-973 3000.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map