Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Why officialdom can sometimes be so wrong

I called in today to see farmer Edward Steele who has been fighting officialdom for years. He is the third generation to have leasehold of a 30-acre farm hidden from view in the folds of rural land between Burneside and Kendal, and nestling up to the banks of the River Sprint, a tributary of the Kent. It is more than 20 years since he decided the land could not support him and his family so started to put static caravans on the site as holiday lets. Instead he found that there was a huge demand from families wanting a rustic life-style but at a cost that could be afforded in the highly priced property markets of the Lake District. As demand grew, he put up more and more lodges and barn structures, attracting alternative life-style tenants. Some carried out small businesses in other barns. Mr Steele charged them roughly half of the commercial rents in nearby Kendal town. In addition he provided free wood-burners and fuel. Trees and hedges grew around these “eco-lodges” so that the former agricultural land became wooded glades where wild-life flourished. Children played in a country idyll, safely. Some were educated at home by their new age parents. Many of the tenants had histories of mental illness, as does Mr Steele, but the lifestyle meant they were able to support each other and stay out of the clutches of the health system. His landlords, a Catholic charity, took a proportion of the rental income and the local council, South Lakeland District Council, took rates and emptied the bins. So everyone was happy. But there was blight on their horizon. Mr Steele had acquired, by default, planning permission for four of the lodges, but not the rest. And the land was clearly allocated for farming on the district plan. So officialdom’s wheels ground slowly into action. Mr Steele had to apply for planning permission, which was refused. He appealed and lost again. He was told to restore the land for agriculture. That meant evicting the tenants, which he refused to do, as well as flattening hedgerows, trees and the lodges. He was prosecuted once and won on a technicality as the council charged him as the owner. So they started again by taking him to civil court for breach of the planning inspector’s ruling. This time a judge agreed the council’s was right in law, which is all that matters in the courts. He ordered Mr Steele to do as he had been told or face jail. The council has now gone to enormous expense of re-housing the tenants in urban properties they don’t want to be in. There will be an on-going cost to ratepayers from housing benefit. No doubt the health service will face future costs of dealing with mental illness. Goodness knows how much the court hearings and council officer time cost the public purse. A depressed Mr Steele spends every day at the controls of a massive digger destroying the wild-life haven he has spent two decades encouraging, uprooting trees and hedgerows and clearing the debris. All but the four original lodges are emptied and flattened. The whole area now looks like a World War One battle scene, and no, that is not hyperbole. In private moments the SLDC councilors say they have to comply with the law. Besides they don’t want shanty towns springing up all over the fringes of the Lake District. “We have to draw the line somewhere,” said one senior councillor. Mr Steele fears he will be evicted by the charity from the farmhouse his grandfather built 100 years ago and without the income from lodges he will be declared bankrupt, as the farm is even less viable than it was when he started on this journey. Why do I feel that this is a crying shame and proof that sometimes the law can be an ass?

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