How the home of Morse may be saved by the house detective

A vintage dark red Jaguar pulls up in the drive of a sprawling Victorian country house. The strains of Puccini's Tosca drift from the car stereo as a balding, middle-aged man gets out and marches with heavy tread towards his front door.

Fans of Colin Dexter will recognise Inspector Morse of Oxford. They will also know the great detective is scheduled to meet his Maker in the final episode, but they are unlikely to be aware that his house, actually in Ealing, west London, is also for an early demise.

Enter Victor Mishuki, a voluntary worker, whose detective skills are almost as legendary as those of the Inspector. Mr Mishuki has spent the past 12 years researching the intricacies of planning legislation and has managed to frustrate the developers hundreds of times by invoking a little-known Victorian law.

Under plans submitted to Ealing Council, the developers want to demolish the 19thcentury building, at 28 Castlebar Road, to make way for a three-storey block of flats.

The property is part of the historic Castlehill Park Estate, which was home to Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent, and campaigners say its destruction would severely damage the historical landscape of the area.

In a letter to Ealing council, English Heritage said the house made a "valuable visual contribution to the area" and its loss would spoil the landscape.

Unfortunately for the residents, many whom have complained their neighbourhoods are being turned into concrete jungles, the weight of public opinion alone is not enough to stop the developers.

But Mr Mishuki, founder of the Covenant Movement, has already prevented several other developments in Ealing by uncovering land covenant restrictions and he believes he can help the people of Castlebar Road.

These Victorian regulations - put in place by the British Land Company, forerunner of modern planning authorities - still hold sway in a court of law. They were drawn up by landlords to protect the amenities on estates as they were split up and sold. In the case of the Morse house, a covenant on the land states that "private dwelling houses only shall be erected" . This, argues Mr Mishuki, forbids the building of the proposed block of flats because a purpose-built multi-occupancy building cannot be classified as a private house.

Last year Banner New Homes was prevented from building a large housing estate in Amersham after the discovery of a covenant.

Mimi Harker, whose back garden was to be removed to make way for the estate, consulted Mr Mishuki, and began legal action. After a bitter battle, she and her fellow residents were awarded full costs and damages of £100,000.

"Mr Mishuki's advice about land covenants gave us little people the chance to fight back," she said. "After we won it was like walking on air."

Since then, Mrs Harker has advised seven other residents' groups, all of whom have succeeded in fending off the developers by using the covenants. But Piers Banfield, the sales and marketing director of Banner Homes, said covenants were irrelevant. "The pressure to build at high densities fuels the fury of local residents at the prospect of new homes in their locality," he said.

"In such circumstances the discovery of an ancient covenant can be greeted with relish by a group of residents who do not like planning consents being handed out by their local authority. In the Amersham case, a local resident keen on publicity managed to whip a group of neighbours into a frenzy with such a discovery. A court case was embarked upon and the matter was settled with small compensation payments."

Many residents have reason to be grateful to Mr Mishuki and they are spreading the word about the legal worth of the land covenants. But Gerald Moran, Mrs Harker's solicitor, said 95 per cent of covenants are still ignored and likened Mr Mishuki to a "one-man army. Most solicitors believe covenants are old nuisances that crop up from time to time and are best ignored. But, used correctly they are a potent legal weapon."

Inspector Morse himself would be proud.