Following a protracted battle involving deception, towering haystacks, and a whole mess of tarpaulin, the Planning Inspectorate has ordered that fanciful farmer Robert Fidler’s dream home, a mock-Tudor castle, be torn down.
This rather strange case dates back to 2001 when the 63-year-old farmer — a farmer with a flowing mullet and a penchant for giant crucifix necklaces and alligator patio decor — finished construction on the garish/whimsical four-bedroom abode. Complete with ramparts and cannon-flanked turrets built around old grain silos, Guardian columnist Alexander Chancellor refers to
the structure as an "impressive piece of pastiche that might even find favour with Prince Charles" and as an "extraordinary achievement by one determined individual, who appears to have built it with his own bare hands and then lived in it for years in semi-darkness with nothing but bales of hay to look out on." (To be clear, since the £50,000 structure serves a purpose beyond ornamentation, many wouldn’t consider it a proper folly).
The thing is, throughout the construction of the home and for over four years after it was completed, Fidler obscured it under a screen of of blue tarps and the aforementioned 40-foot-tall wall of straw bales. The reason? Fidler neglected to get permission from planning authorities to build his faux castle. And as things go, that’s something you should probably do before building a home, whether it’s in the shape of a medieval castle or a giant teapot. Pesky and oppressive sure, but in most areas, including the protected district where Fidler lives, it’s the law.
Fidler may have been deceitful in his flouting of the law but he isn’t a complete moron. Planning guidelines state that if a building built without permission receives no complaints within four years of its construction, it cannot be “enforced upon” by officials. So after four years, Fidler removed the tarp and haystack barrier that had obscured his clandestine castle, thinking that because of the legal loophole he was totally in the clear.
Not quite. In 2007, the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council came after Fidler and demanded that he demolish the unauthorized home. He appealed with planning officials. That didn’t do the trick; they claimed the four-year rule kicked in after the straw bales were removed and permission would not be granted retroactively.
From his [Fidler’s] own evidence and submissions it was always his intention to remove the bales once he thought that lawfulness had been secured. It is therefore quite obvious he never intended to continue to live within a straw stack and until the straw was removed he could not enjoy a reasonable level of residential amenity, consistent with normal expectations of what a dwelling house should provide.
The last and final appeal with the Planning Inspectorate didn’t go so swimmingly for Fidler either. After a two-day hearing earlier this month, inspector Sara Morgan delivered another tear-down order
Morgan wrote of Fidler in her report: "His actions in constructing the dwelling house behind a wall of straw bales, and then living in the building for over four years before the bales were removed, was intended to conceal the building and its use from the council’s knowledge and thus prevent any enforcement action being taken before it was too late."
Reigate and Banstead Borough Council member Mike Miller reacted to Morgan’s decision:
We are pleased with the outcome of the appeal and the planning inspector’s decision. It supports our argument that the building is unlawful and that our earlier enforcement notices are valid. Had this appeal been allowed, it would have set an unacceptable precedent for development in the green belt. The council has a duty to protect the green belt from unlawful development and the character of the borough — that is what our residents want and expect of us.
The green belt
that Miller refers to is the Metropolitan Green Belt, the largest of 14 heavily protected yet under-threat
swaths of permanently open land in England meant to halt urban sprawl from seeping out of city centers and to preserve the rural character of historic towns and the countryside surrounding them.
Fidler now has six weeks to once again appeal to the High Court following the latest ruling. Following the 2010 ruling, he declared: “This house will never be knocked down. This is a beautiful house that has been lovingly created. I will do whatever it takes to keep it.” At the time, he mentioned he would take his case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
I suppose at this point he should start considering installing a moat and adding a couple of more (functional) cannons.
While it’s never pleasant to see a family suffer through a six-year battle to save their home from demolishment, it’s safe to say that this could have all been avoided by playing by the rules like everyone else. Simple as that.
Any thoughts on the matter? Do you think that this secret castle builder, a defiant folk hero of sorts who Alexander Chancellor refers to as a "throwback to a less submissive age" should be allowed to keep his home? One thing that I'm still a bit hazy on: how were local planning authorities oblivious to the massive straw bale and tarp installation on Fidler's property for more than four years? Did they really not realize something was up until one day an ersatz castle magically appeared on Fidler's land?