Every home needs its moat: The right of an Englishman to create his own castle is being restricted. David James blames conservationists

Click to follow
Down at the local planning department a voice cries out: 'Why can't I have a new front door?' Back comes the reply: 'You can . . . but you should have had planning permission first.'

'But, er . . . why?' enquires our bewildered local, Andy Mann. The retort is swift: 'Because you live in a Conservation Area, and the sort of door you've fitted doesn't suit the character and appearance of the locality.'

Welling with anger, Andy Mann raises his voice: 'Look mate, I've just forked out the best part of five hundred quid for a brand new Georgian-style replacement door; and I've darn near bust a gut to fit it. What's wrong about that?'

The local planning officer remains calm: 'Look Mr Mann, I know that you've done a good job. It's just that we have a policy which precludes the use of UPVC replacements in this particular area. Now, if you had come to us first we would have told you that we only permit the use of traditional materials in this locality.'

'But that's blinking daft]' splutters Andy. 'What about that cottage on the other side of the road - the one with the corrugated asbestos sheeting laid straight over the old thatch?'

'Ah. That's a different matter.'

'Too darn right it is,' grunts Andy 'That roof is an eyesore.'

'Mmm,' mumbles the officer, turning to the door. 'I will put in a report about your door to the next meeting of the planning committee, after which I will be in touch with you again. Good day, Mr Mann.'

Scenes like this are now set to be bread-and-butter events in the daily life of the local planning department. Last week David Curry, the planning minister, said that local authorities would be given greater powers to control alterations to houses in conservation areas. These powers would include control over the sort of doors, windows, roofs etc that people would be able to put on their homes. PVC replacement windows, pebbledash facing, and the wrong sort of door may soon be banned. And we have only ourselves to blame.

As spring gets under way, millions of people will be eagerly planning home improvements. What about replacing the doors and windows in your house? Or taking down the garden wall and laying a concrete standing for the car? How about that new porch you promised yourself? And isn't it about time you got round to the outside brickwork - won't it look much better if you paint it?

But if you are not thwarted - as you may have been over the past week - by inclement weather, you may well find your plans frustrated by the climate of public opinion. And this is highly susceptible to change.

Sometimes these changes seem to be made for no good reason other than change itself, brought about by the fickle fancies of an increasing number of pressure groups. And, paradoxical though it may seem, those pressure groups most resistant to change are often the very ones who seek to bring it about in order to achieve their objectives. Conservationists fall into this category.

In this country, the break-up of the great estates and increased prosperity - relative to previous generations - coupled with easy access to long-term finance have brought into existence a property-owning democracy. This, in turn, has conferred rights as well as duties on millions of ordinary people. It is often said that an Englishman's home is his castle and it should therefore come as no surprise if the 'castle-dwellers' man the battlements or pull up the drawbridge at the first sign of a threat to their rights.

One of these rights must surely be the right to repair the fabric of the building. Tens of thousands of people - builders and DIY enthusiasts alike - do so every day, in a way that best suits their pockets and tastes. Such activity is characteristic of almost every street scene.

An important by-product of mass home-ownership in Britain this century has been the phenomenal growth in 'do-it-yourself', which has undoubtedly made a positive contribution to economic activity and improved the fabric of our built environment.

A generation ago, DIY would, in general, have been confined to interior redecoration; even then, ceilings were often the territory of the brave, while exterior repainting was invariably considered the preserve of the skilled. Today, enthusiastic amateurs undertake complex home repairs and improvements that used to require the services of a time-served apprentice to the building trade.

More often than not the results of DIY effort are workmanlike and worthy of praise - although they can sometimes be a chartered surveyor's nightmare. These days we can all be a 'bit of a builder'.

New windows, new doors, new cupboards, new floors: whatever takes our fancy, we can have a bash at it. Unless a building is 'listed' - where special considerations apply - we do not generally need to obtain planning consent for carrying out repairs, improvements and alterations that affect only the interior of a building, or do not materially affect the external appearance of the building. The Town & Country General Development Order (known as the GDO) specifies categories of permitted development which can be undertaken without the need for planning consent.

These limits to development controls are important, and are consistent with successive governments' recognition of the need to minimise regulation and interference with individuals' activities in matters of planning and development.

Alas, an army of conservationists wants to curtail the activities of householders in repairing, improving and altering their own homes. Dressed in the livery of 'neo-traditionalism' and chanting the battlecry 'If it isn't broken, don't fix it', these self-styled guardians of our heritage are hell-bent on shackling builders and DIY enthusiasts in Conservation Areas with pointless bureaucracy.

Judging by Mr Curry's promise of stiffer controls, it seems that this army of so-called discerning traditionalists is well on the way to their objective: much tighter regulation of the work that may be carried out on a private house without planning consent. One of the things they want is to restrict the use of modern materials in the repair and renewal process. They argue that while minor changes in the street scene are insignificant in isolation, cumulatively they may detract from the character and appearance of the buildings and locality. In short, they want to ensure that where alterations are carried out, those works leave the impression that no alterations have taken place.

This ideology must not be allowed to go unchallenged. The technologically advanced building materials and components available today are far superior in terms of utility than their traditional counterparts. Hundreds of millions have been spent on research and development of new building products which are easier and less costly to supply, fix and maintain, and which have a greater life expectancy than traditional products. That is why so many ordinary people have been able to make such a worthwhile contribution to improving the fabric of the built environment. Modern materials are generally less hassle, cheaper and more durable - and they look just as good. Why should we turn our backs on new technology?

But there is another important issue: individual freedom of choice. What justification is there for submitting the freedom of individuals to choose the manner in which they repair, alter or improve their property, to the highly subjective tastes and prejudices of busybodies? Was that how our heritage was created?

The author is principal lecturer in Land Management at De Montfort university, Milton Keynes.

(Photographs omitted)