John Gawthorp loses legal battle against Fenland District Council for demolition of stable home

FOUR months ago he described himself as “the little man fighting the sharks” - but the sharks won when John Gawthorp lost his legal battle against Fenland District Council.

Mr Gawthorp and his wife Elaine were at Peterborough County Court on Friday in protest of the �7,050 bill they were forced to pay to the council after it destroyed their stable home at Bedlam Bridge, near March, three years ago.

The Gawthorps also claimed they lost �10,000 in the sale of the land because the council’s action contaminated the three-acre plot.

However, District Judge Stuart Farquhar ruled that the council acted appropriately and was not responsible for the contamination after Mr Gawthorp told the court he sold the land for �10,000 under his initial price because of “bad memories”.

The judge also awarded Mr and Mrs Gawthorp to pay the council’s legal costs of �2,829.25. The council had applied for costs of �4,780.15 but the judge ruled the figure was “a bit excessive”.

Mr Gawthorp was always adamant he was given verbal planning permission in November 2005 by planning officers through staff at the council’s one-stop shop in Chatteris but admitted to Judge Farquhar he never received this permission in writing.

He told the court he intended to build some polytunnels and become a market gardener, and that he was “not that na�ve” to sell his home in Chatteris for �80,000 before moving to Bedlam Bridge and setting up home.

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When the judge asked whether Mr Gawthorp understood “the logic” of having written permission, he said: “I adhered to what they (the staff) said in the shop and what the planning department said the same day – they told me what I can and can’t do.”

The judge also watched a BBC Look East report into the matter in which, Mr Gawthorp claimed, the council’s development delivery manager Nigel Brown admitted he was given wrong information.

Mr Brown told the court that a member of his team was contacted by the one-stop shop after Mr Gawthorp’s visit and he left “not clear about what he wanted”. He also said he didn’t know exactly what was said to Mr Gawthorp and didn’t know who spoke to him.

Mr Brown said: “He (Mr Gawthorp) was obviously confused but had clearly the wrong impression. I apologise that he was in that situation.

“I phoned the manager of the one-stop shop who, after talking to her team, made it clear that nobody gave the view that there was such a thing as verbal planning permission. I am confident from the training that the planning team gave to the customer service team that that wouldn’t be the case.”

The situation was clarified in a letter to Mr Gawthorp a couple of days later, a second letter from Mr Brown two weeks later and in January 2006 when Mr Brown visited Mr Gawthorp at Bedlam Bridge after he moved a caravan onto the plot.

Mr Brown also pointed out in court that there is “no such thing as verbal planning permission in law”.

Judge Farquhar said: “It is fair to say the individual involved in the one-stop shop has not been identified to me at least and therefore it seems weird to me that Fenland District Council disputes what was said by Mr Gawthorp because it simply doesn’t know or cannot know who spoke to him.

“It would be unusual in the extreme to say to someone they have got verbal planning permission, it would have been contrary to the law. But it became clear to the planning authority that this was the impression Mr Gawthorp was under.

“As a result of which a couple of days later someone to the planning department wrote to Mr Gawthorp saying this was not the case.”

In May 2007, after a 15-month battle between the council and Mr Gawthorp, bulldozers moved in and demolished the stable home.

Mr Gawthorp said the works could have been carried out for about �220 with the hire of an excavator. The council tendered for the job but only Constant & Co of Bedfordshire replied with a quote of �6,000 plus VAT.

Brian Lecoche, director of Constant & Co, said his company were at the site for “seven or eight hours” with four staff as well as two workers from a sub-contractor and two removal workers who removed the Gawthorps’ belongings. Administration costs also had to be considered.

Ian Hunt, the council’s legal services manager, said: “We did endeavour to find the best price we reasonably could but there are a very limited firms doing this work. Constant has a virtual monopoly in this area.”

Mr Hunt also said: “The claimants did have an opportunity – and there was a substantial timeframe – to have removed the illegal planning use on the site by doing the works themselves. Had they done that, they could have controlled the costs and they could have been substantially cheaper.”

Judge Farquhar said of the bill: “A first it looks an extremely large amount of money for a small structure such as this (to be demolished). Clearly there has to be some profit involved.

“The reality is that Constant & Co seems to have a monopoly. To that extent they can more or less charge what they wish and it seems they have done. The difficulty is that Fenland District Council has to get the work done and I am satisfied it is the only figure it could get.

“In the circumstances it doesn’t seem to me that it is an unreasonable figure.”

Mr Gawthorp said his wife paid the enforcement bill following threats of “bailiffs kicking the door in”. He claimed the council’s former enforcement officer Steve Robshaw refused to discuss the bill with him.

He subsequently sold the land for �25,000 – �10,000 under his valuation – to a friend he met in Chatteris Working Men’s Club.

“I just let go of it,” he told the court. “I should have hung onto it and held out for �35,000.”

He said he feared the council had contaminated the plot after three or four of his chickens reared on the land died. But Steven Bass, the council’s environment protection officer, told the court that a chemical test provided by Mr Gawthorp showed nothing that would harm chickens.

In his summing up, Mr Gawthorp said: “I have not got much left; only my pride left and Fenland District Council is not going to take that from me.”

Judge Farquhar said: “In Mr Gawthorp’s words, he could have held out for more (money when selling the land) and as a result that claim will not succeed.”

Mr Gawthorp immediately appealed the’s decision on three grounds. He claimed that evidence from the Look East report was not fully considered, that he recognised a woman he spoke to in the one-stop shop and that another woman who was in the one-stop shop at the time had emigrated to Australia.

That was refused, however, by the judge who said: “The DVD indicated very little in terms of evidence, I find it weird that he hasn’t been able to (recognise the woman in the one-stop shop) before and we can always hold a video conference.”

Mr Gawthorp is set to seek a review of the appeal decision and can apply to the Circuit Judge within 21 days.

After the hearing, he said: “I think the decision was appalling.”

A council spokesman said: “We’re pleased that the judge’s ruling has fully vindicated the actions the council has taken.

“We had given Mr Gawthorp every opportunity to comply with planning law and our view that he had broken that law was supported by the Planning Inspectorate. Ultimately, the enforcement action that we took was the only option open to us and we took it only as a last resort. We regret that that was necessary.

“We hope that the ruling finally brings an end to this unfortunate case.”

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