Not without planning permission you won't. And certainly not without incurring the wrath (or envy) of your neighbours. By Jim White
The modern world is rife with new stress-related conditions. In the jams clogging up freshly built by-passes, car occupants are driven to irrational acts of fury by road rage. In the city, home-owners, visited by infestations of rodents, find themselves weeping with fear at the mention of the word rat. And if you think you are safe out in the country, insulated from crime and poverty in green-belt villages, cosily isolated from modernisation down a leafy lane in a prosperous rural community, think again. You are statistically more likely, out there, to suffer the most debilitating and time-consuming of all the new ailments of the modern world: planning paranoia.

Albert Dryden suffered from planning paranoia. In 1989, Dryden, a former steelworker, built himself a bungalow on land he owned in Butsfield, Co Durham. The bungalow had everything he had ever wanted in a house: a patio, a verandah, a luxury bathroom. What it didn't have was planning permission. After a protracted wrangle, Derwentside District Council won an order which obliged him to demolish the place. Dryden couldn't understand why: it was his land, surely it was his right to do what he liked on it. So he refused to demolish it, he said he'd rather go to prison. Derwentside persisted. And in January 1991, after months of legal ramification, Harry Collinson, a council bailiff, turned up at Mr Dryden's gate with a team of demolition men and a JCB. Cameras from the BBC local news turned up too: the case of Dryden's bungalow was something of a cause celebre thereabouts. It was these cameras that captured the moment of extreme planning paranoia, when Albert took out his old service revolver and shot Harry Collinson dead.

The pervasiveness of planning paranoia is that it strikes in two directions at once. For every bungalow builder distressed that he can't do what he wants on his own land, there are four of his neighbours seething that apparently he can. Neighbours like Susie Mathis, of Higher Whitley in Cheshire, whose view of the tranquillity of the local countryside was interrupted when a local farm-owner, John Bryan, built three barns on land he owned to accommodate his collection of shire horses. Ms Mathis did not approve of their style."That development of his is absolute bollocks," she said at the time they went up. "Not barns."

Stuck between the warring parties were the local planners of Vale Royal District Council: demonised by one side for being agents of big brother disrupting the inalienable human right to do what you like with your own land , and by the other for being craven in the face of rogue builders.

Across the country, battles like this are consuming the time and energy of hundreds of people. Go into any village pub and you will hear of them. That, and the admiring yarns about the ingenious ways folk have found to circumnavigate the regulations. Like the man in Wiltshire who turned the farm he bought into a polo ground, and, when he was refused planning permission for a permanent club-house, converted a mobile home for the purpose. This was apparently considered reasonable by the local authority, provided he proved his new club-house was indeed mobile by moving it every couple of months.

All such disputes, all such causes of planning paranoia, have one thing in common, a British version of the debate presently exercising middle America. At their core is the philosophical point: whose rights should be pre-eminent, the individual landowner's or the wider community's?

The government is presently constructing a White Paper on the future of the countryside which, interested parties hope, will clarify whose side the law is on. Both sides have their champions: in the blue corner is the Country Landowners Association and in the red the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. Like two sects of the same religion, while both bodies claim the preservation of the countryside as their principal purpose, they differ wildly on how that might be achieved. "We do not believe a landowner should have carte blanche any more than any other citizen," says Tony Bailey, Chief Policy Adviser of the Country Landowners Association. "But they do have the right to make economic use of their land."

"We simply don't accept that view," says Tony Burton, chief planning officer of the CPRE. "There is a wider public interest. The system as it stands doesn't really address some of the qualitative things that people value in the countryside: the views, the tranquillity, the birdsong. Once those things have gone, they have gone forever. "

The White Paper will have some fresh input from an unexpected source. At the end of this month, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is expected to deliver its final judgment on a case which epitomises planning paranoia. The case of the Higher Whitley barns.

John Bryan took his argument there after he was told by Vale Royal Council that the barns had to come down. He tried to appeal through a British court, but was told he could not. So he went to Strasbourg. An interim judgement there ruled last year that British law, by refusing his right of appeal, breached Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Until the final judgment is given, Strasbourg asked the warring parties to "seek a friendly settlement". Which shows how little the court in Strasbourg knows about planning paranoia. During the course of the judgement, Vale Royal demolished two of Mr Bryan's barns and, after threatening him with all sorts of legal to-ing and fro-ing, he knocked down the third. If he wins at the end of the month, he can't get his barns back, but he is hoping for compensation - over pounds 150,000 his solicitor has asked for. The council, meanwhile, are hoping he does not.

And if Strasbourg agrees with Mr Bryan, the balance in the debate will have shifted significantly. Planning paranoia may never be the same again.

Comments