Pensioners forced to replace 'illegal' windows: Council follows conservation rules to the letter in cottage fight. Peter Dunn reports

COUNCIL workmen will end a four-year planning dispute tomorrow when they descend on a pensioner's 18th century thatched cottage in Whitelackington, Somerset, and remove four illegal plastic windows. They will replace them with officially approved lattice frames made of oak, mild steel and greenhouse glass.

Jack Green, 75, a retired engineer, and his wife Lucie, 72, cannot afford to pay the pounds 2,500 for the work on their home, despite a grant of pounds 817. So South Somerset District Council has lent them the balance. To ensure that they get it back if the Greens die or sell up they have taken possession of the deeds of The Forge, a Grade II listed semi-detached property.

Exhausted by their long fight, the Greens have conceded defeat. 'We've decided to take it on the chin and get it done with,' Mrs Green said yesterday. 'We've both been ill and they do say that stress does cause these things. I was 40 years without a doctor and now I'm there every month.'

The Greens, retired Londoners, moved into their cottage - an old forge on a dangerous bend near Ilminster - 10 years ago. It had been gutted by fire in 1935 and much of its structure, including chimneys and windows, dates from then. It was listed Grade II, along with its older neighbour, The Lodge (to Dillington Park), in 1958.

The four windows facing the main road were rotting with condensation and letting in traffic noise and the cold. Eight years ago, when a pounds 4,000 endowment policy matured, the Greens decided to spend the money doing up the cottage, including pounds 1,800 on new plastic windows.

'The previous owner said Grade II meant you couldn't make structural alterations,' Mr Green says. 'So with these windows I was just putting in what looked the same but wouldn't need any maintenance.

'I said to the man that put them in, 'It's a listed building so they've got to look exactly the same, same number of panels, everything'. We were joint secretaries of the Ilminster Historical Society so obviously we cared about these things.

'Two years later, a man from the council went to tell the man next door to take down an illegal satellite dish. Then he saw our windows and came round and said he was the 'enforcer', and said we'd be reported and probably prosecuted because the windows were illegal.

'When it went to the public inquiry we'd got a petition of support from everyone in the village. The council said the reflection's wrong because instead of individual pieces of glass between each light it's one sheet of glass with lead panels. I'm most unhappy about it. The council says the loan's got to be repaid within six months of the death of both parties or disposal of the property.'

A council spokeswoman said yesterday: 'I'm well aware that some people feel we've been heavy-handed. But legally we can only follow legislation . . . As I'm sure you know, they installed the windows without consent and this is a criminal offence. We weren't obliged to lend them the money . . . but decided to do so in the very special circumstances.'

The Greens' neighbour, Henry Best, chairman of the South Somerset Council for the Protection of Rural England, says the community is angry at the treatment of the Greens.

'We've said, 'Look if they're replacing a window which isn't original, which has no architectural or historical merit, why can't they use modern materials?' There's no doubt the council has right on its side because the inquiry inspector has said so. But the council could then have said 'Don't do it again', and left things as they are because it's not a terrible thing they've done.

'The council and English Heritage say it's the integrity of the building that counts. Very few old buildings are integral these days. They've got concrete underpinning stone, liners up chimneys, damp courses . . . Let's face it, if our forebears could afford to get rid of lattice windows and put in nice modern sashes, they did so.

'Last winter a man from the district council was invited to talk to the village about listed buildings and how the system worked. He was barracked because of what they'd done to the Greens. By being so obdurate . . . I think they've done the cause of conservation a disservice.'

Leading article, page 19

(Photograph omitted)

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