23 October 2005

23 October 2005

All bricked up and nowhere to go

When a developer was allowed to build a metre from their home, the Abbies could do nothing. Lynne Wallis reports

When Andrew and Lorna Abbie moved into their dream home, Lynchgate, in 1991, they were reassured by solicitors for the developers who sold them the property that any further building in the immediate vicinity was unlikely, as anything too close to their house wouldn't get planning permission.

Fourteen years later, the property developers/hoteliers they purchased their home from, brothers Patrick and Michael O'Donnell, are halfway through building another house behind their hotel, the back wall of which is just over a metre away from the Abbies' home.

The new, half-built house blocks the light to the Abbies' ground-floor hallway, and overlooks their gardens and conservatory. "The first thing you see when you come through the front door is a brick wall, and it's very dark without lights on," says Lorna. "It's not exactly a welcoming sight for a potential purchaser."

The Abbies paid £240,000 for Lynchgate, a modern, four-bedroom house in the leafy conservation area of Lynch Close in Blackheath, south-east London. It was worth £850,000 last year, before the development next door began. Valuers say £700,000 would now be more realistic.

Lorna is so furious with what she regards as a totally unjust situation that she spends a minimum of two hours every day outside the Clarendon Hotel, the establishment on the heath owned by the O'Donnells, with a placard explaining her plight: "Would you like to face a brick wall?" She stands out in conservative Blackheath, an area not famed for radical demonstrations or banner- waving of any kind.

She has gathered more than 1,000 signatures for her petition against Lewisham Council's decision to grant permission and a response is being prepared. Two local newspapers claimed the Abbies' legal advisers had conducted an investigation into the local authority's procedures which found its conduct perfectly reasonable - the following week they were forced to run retractions. The investigation had been the council's own, not one carried out by Abbies' solicitors.

One house has already been built and completed near Lynchgate, in May last year. Architect Suzanne Brewer bought a plot of land to the rear of 17 Montpelier Vale in 2002, right next to the site of the half-built house that is blocking light from Lynchgate, known as "the rear of 17a Montpelier Vale".

Michael O'Donnell initially objected to Ms Brewer's plans on the basis that he thought them "entirely inappropriate", withdrawing his objection three months later. Ms Brewer later designed a property for him at the rear of l7a.

Planning notices for building a part single-/part two-storey house at the rear of l7a went out in September 2003, and a meeting of all concerned parties was held in November. Lorna attended as an objector, but planning officers mistakenly listed the proposals for 17, not 17a.

A second planning meeting was arranged for December 16, to comply with council protocol. Lorna was advised by the head of planning, Louise Holland, that it was up to her whether she attended. (Lorna had a work engagement she was reluctant to cancel.) The next day, letters went out advising all parties that permission had been granted to build next to Lynchgate.

Lorna says: "We never complained on the basis that we were protecting a view - that's not relevant anyway. It was our home being seriously overlooked, and the loss of light issue, which planners told us could not be safeguarded. We have no right of appeal as objectors, no recourse whatsoever - there have to be three objectors and we had three, us and a neighbour, but the council counted Andrew and me as one.

"Our solicitor said we could go for judicial review, but we can't afford to. It would cost a minimum of £35,000, and judges won't intervene in planning decisions unless it's for exceptional circumstances, even though our home has been ruined."

So what do they want? Lorna says: "I want an investigation into what they have done. Allowing building which will overlook our home in such a serious way is a breach of our human rights to enjoy our home and family life. The people of Lewisham should be worried because this means anything can be built on any old bit of land for an infill development."

Lorna began her heathside campaign three months ago when the superstructure for the rear of l7a began, and the nightmare of a brick wall one metre away blocking the light within Lynchgate became reality. She says: "Most interested passers-by want to come and see it before they sign, and they can't believe it. We've had a lot of support and sympathy."

Michael O'Donnell has declined to comment. While planners at Lewisham Council are reluctant to speak directly about "such a sensitive case", the press office says that the council is obliged to comply with central government regulations on planning issues.

The nearest thing Lorna has got to an apology came when Mr O'Donnell stopped his car as he drove out of The Clarendon recently and, she claims, told her: "We didn't want to build so close to you, but when the other landowner sold his land to Suzanne Brewer, it limited our options for building to the plot next to your house." Abbie replied that there are always choices, always alternatives.

Mr O'Donnell allegedly then made a reference to the amount of money he would have lost if building hadn't gone ahead.

Lorna admitted to once becoming so frustrated at her plight she stood in her garden and screamed.

The Abbies' legal bill reached £7,000 before they decided against a judicial review, partly for financial reasons but also because of the ill health of a family member.

Brendan O'Connor, the assistant director of practice at the Royal Institute of British Architects, believes it is wrong that the Abbies have no right of appeal, and the RIBA is putting her case forward at its next meeting for discussion.

Meanwhile, Lorna continues to attract interest and support for her one-woman heathside campaign. "Even if we go to the Ombudsman, I know we won't get building stopped," she concludes.

"We'd like some compensation for the loss to the value of our property. Under the circumstances, that's the least the council could offer."

Young designers enjoy play area

PLAYFUL schoolchildren have seen their vision become a reality.

Children at Sandhurst Junior School, Catford, entered a competition which encouraged pupils to come up with a new design for their school playground.

Now the Minard Road school has a new play area after competition organiser Creative Partnerships chose to develop their design.

The new playground, which was formally opened by culture minister David Lammy, has a larger play space, new climbing frames and a basketball court.

Headteacher Val Hughes said: "The children love the new equipment and it is such an improvement.

"So many of them want to play on it we have had to set up a rota so they can take it in turns."

Creative Partnerships was set up by the Arts Council to encourage more creative learning in schools.

Community service for benefit fraud student

Yes, it's next door but it is a slow news day ;)

A BENEFIT fraudster who illegally claimed more than £16,000 has been ordered to do 240 hours' community service.

Justin Emmanuel, of Charlton Road, Blackheath, claimed the housing and council tax benefit between July 2001 and October last year.

But the 35-year-old failed to declare he was a student who received more than £15,000 in loans and student grants.

Emmanuel pleaded guilty to six charges of benefit fraud at Woolwich Crown Court.

Greenwich Council leader Councillor Chris Roberts says he hopes the punishment "serves as a warning" to other would-be benefit fraudsters.

He added: "People who do this are stealing money from taxpayers which could be spent on vital services.

"We take this issue very seriously and will continue to target those who cheat the system."

Kids kicking racism into touch

YOUNGSTERS played at a primary school football tournament in support of National Anti-Racism Week.

Sydenham Soccer Clinic and Sydenham School invited five schools from across the borough to battle for the Kick it Out trophy.

Kick it Out is a campaign set up in 1993 to tackle racism in football.

The fourth annual competition took place at the Dartmouth Road school and involved more than 100 children from Stillness, Kelvin Grove, Eliot Bank, Dalmain and Kilmorie junior schools.

The Kelvin Grove Junior School team won the trophy after finishing top of the league.

Sydenham Soccer Clinic coach Dave King said: "The tournament was a great success in celebrating anti-racism in football.

"Children learn it is a team game where people have to learn how to respect each other."

For more information on the Kick Racism Out of Football Campaign, visit kickitout.org

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