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.

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