Property: From tennis court to High Court

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YOU ARE lucky enough to have a couple of acres of land with your house, including a pony paddock, but your daughter now wants to become a star tennis player instead of a showjumper. So you turn one corner of the paddock into a tennis court.

A few years later, just as the backhand is sweetening, a planning officer knocks at your door and tells you to pull the court down. It is, he says, built on agricultural land.

Landowners and planners in the affluent district of Newbury in Berkshire have locked horns frequently over this issue. The crux of the matter is: when is your garden not a garden? In rural areas your land may consist of a number of fields as well as the lawn-and-flowers patch which constitutes the garden proper. Unless your solicitor is rigorous when examining the deeds and the local authority search on your home, you could discover that land you considered yours to mow is designated for agricultural use only, however absurd that appears in the era of set-aside.

Patrick Bailey is a partner with Strutt & Parker in Newbury, so he knows the rules. He applied to put a tennis court on part of his paddock and his application was turned down - but that was only the start of his troubles. Following his inspection the planning officer returned to say he believed Mr Bailey had extended his garden into what had formerly been agricultural land. Would he please restore the land to its previously unkempt state.

Mr Bailey managed to find aerial photographs of his home taken in 1981, 10 years before he bought it. He may be able to prove that the land has been like it is for long enough to merit an established form of use. He and the planners are arguing it out over the magnifying glass.

A few miles down the road in Wickham Heath, Roger Mallaburn has found his tennis court has proved even more contentious. In 1991 he applied for planning permission to extend his garage and was duly visited. While there, the officer noticed he had a tennis court and said it required planning permission, for which Mr Mallaburn could apply retrospectively. He paid his pounds 100 application and was turned down, on the basis that the court did not fit in with its surroundings. He appealed against the decision, which cost him a handsome pounds 4,000 - half as much as the tennis court itself - and won.

Newbury District Council took him to the High Court, where the judge has referred the matter back to the Secretary of State for the Environment. Mr Mallaburn is waiting to hear whether his tennis court will be allowed to stay.

Chris Watts, Newbury's assistant director of development control, is sympathetic to such home owners. 'They honestly believe that what they are doing is something they are entitled to do,' he says. 'We are not out to deny people's rights to the use of their land, but we are concerned that there does appear to be an encroachment of residential use into countryside areas.'

Mr Mallaburn says, 'I think it's a disgrace that the public have to fund this kind of legal activity. No one can understand why they are pursuing this. Even the parish council has written to them.' Budding McEnroes be warned - when it comes to tennis courts, Newbury can be serious.

THE HOUSE price figures from two leading building societies published this week give conflicting information. The Nationwide saw a monthly drop of 1.8 per cent in September, its first recorded drop this year; the Halifax reported an increase of 0.3 per cent for the month. However, both report prices rising slightly in the long term, the Nationwide showing a rise of 2.5 per cent since January and the Halifax a rise of 1 per cent over the past year.

So which should you believe if you want to know the value of your own house? Neither.

Consult a trustworthy and experienced local estate agent who has sold lots of houses like yours and, if you want to avoid making him apopleptic, do not quote to him the figures from national surveys.