Destruction of wild gardens ordered under the Town and Country Planning Act (section 215, s.215).

All men recognise the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.

Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862

This is one of the original SeeRed webpages yet it has proved enduringly popular. Householders in the UK have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms for refusing to 'tidy up' their gardens. More recently (November 2005) there has been an outcry over instructions that street muggers who use 'only minimal force' should not be sent to jail - they should get a pat on the head instead perhaps?

Earlier in 2005, John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued new guidance on 'best practice' for Councils in pursuing Section 215 cases. This is as a pdf document - size about 500k, download time 2 minutes. John Prescott and his department were renowned for large scale environmental vandalism - a Press report from November 2005 sums up his thuggish behaviour.

Widespread abuse of the planning system is allowing developers to get away with building thousands of houses without contributing to infrastructure. One of several articles published in early 2006 is reproduced here. All of which confirms that local councils and their over-zealous jobsworth officials should be told to concentrate a little more on environmental problems that really matter, and maybe a little less on a few square metres of ecologically beneficial 'weeds'. Many environmental groups including the RSPB now advocate leaving small or large areas of garden to grow 'wild' because of the benefits to wildlife, especially birds. Lack of insects is now thought to be one reason why some bird populations are falling so steeply.

Nevertheless, some councils seem to enjoy using s.215 powers 'proactively' - issuing notices and demanding repainting of buildings even when no complaints from members of the public have been received. Indeed, they are encouraged to do so by a Labour government who have become renowned for trying to control almost every aspect of the lives of citizens. Since the issue of Prescott's 'Best Practice Guide' some councils seem to have been pursuing a policy of issuing or threatening to issue as large a number of s.215 notices as possible. Maybe this has something to do with performance targets for staff or maybe some councils think it gives them kudos to have their name cited as one of the leaders in this field. The parallel with the police - who have been severely discredited by chasing 'performance targets' instead of real criminals is only too obvious. To their credit, in mid 2008, some police forces dropped the Home Office schemes for assessing police performance by 'tick boxes' and have gone back to doing their jobs properly - and in a manner that might regain them some of the support they have traditionally enjoyed from Middle England.

Of equal concern is that minor council officials can act on malicious or frivolous complaints from people who simply don't like their neighbours or who view any departure from their own (often prissy) lifestyles as verging on sinful. Thus, in an area renowned for its close cropped lawns and ecological sterility, a small overgrown garden can be pursued with both vigour and venom. It does not help justice that the grounds for formal appeal are limited - and rely on local magistrates who probably hold the same 'conventional' views as the complainant(s). In all, the pursuit of minor issues by local councils utilising the heavy handed approach of s.215 notices represents an affront to justice - but since when did that worry either local or central government?

In 2008, a new large scale threat to local environments emerged under the guise of 'eco-towns'. Central government has threatened protesters with new 'fast track' planning procedures. In the midst of all this licensed thuggery, many local councils are still stuck in the 'Britain in Bloom' age and respond to complaints about 'weeds and untidiness' even in small back gardens with threats of prosecution - and even before listening to both sides of what is often a minor local difference of opinion on styles of gardening. Chester City Council are one example. Interestingly, farmers seem to be completely immune from prosecution - rusty relics of farm machinery litter the countryside, fences are broken down and never repaired and 'weeds' grow freely on acres of set-aside and other land without so much as a murmur in the corridors of power. Maybe the fact that so many farmers are councillors has something to do with it?

What needs to be done is either to repeal s.215 completely or issue new guidance to dimwit 'jobsworth' officials so that they cannot so readily seek to misuse legislation to persecute ordinary and inoffensive householders who choose to grow native and environmentally beneficial plants in their own gardens. Magistrates also need to become better educated - and they need to stop automatically siding with local councils in these and other disputes. In the 'Best Practice' document issued by John Prescott's office (see link above) there is gloating self-congratulation both that s.215 can be used a a 'threat' against people and that 'very few appeals succeed'.

The following letter appeared in the Sidmouth Herald on 3 Oct. 98 during the first year of Sidmouth's Britain in Bloom debate. It highlights the attitude that should be taken when dealing with wilting councillors. Subjecting these narrow minded people to ridicule and sustained publicity can expose them for the cowards and bullies that they really are.

Forget the sensationalism and look at the facts

SIR - On August 29 you reported my letter in the Western Morning News in support of wildlife gardens.(see wmntidygarden.htm). You unfairly accused me of an 'outburst' and in an editorial said that my "rantings against Britain in Bloom are unfair". My role is educational and it would be appreciated if in future the Herald would avoid tabloid urges for sensationalism. Similar points have been made recently by several readers.

On September 12 you reported a Sidmouth Town Council meeting at which my garden was discussed and implied I had ignored letters from EDDC. They wrote to me on August 12 and I replied on August 26. On August 27 they wrote to the town council to instigate the formal process leading to prosecution. Councillors Sutherland-Earl and Jolly predictably failed to grasp the issues involved.

Some facts may be useful to EDDC and district councillors prior to more widespread publicity. It is generally covenants not planning law that can disallow storage of a caravan. I would question therefore being told by Jane Sutherland-Earl "move the caravan, clear the area and grow a lawn". Councillors have no right to misuse their positions to attempt to dictate matters outside their remit. Resignation would be one honourable option.

In a free country, no law should be able to dictate whether I have an area of lawn, an orchard, a rockery, shrubs, paving slabs, a waterfall, tarmac or a meadow in my garden. If I wish to plant turnips that is my business. Unlike geese and councillors, turnips neither constitute a nuisance nor do they make noises and attack people. If I have long, short or medium length grass or other plants, that is also my business, as is the colour and height of my roses. If I wish to store and reuse old bricks in line with County Council and EU guidance I will do so.

But what about Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act? This is catchall legislation, beloved of zealots because it centres on a word that cannot be uniquely defined: amenity.

"IF IT APPEARS TO the local planning authority that the amenity of a part of their area is adversely affected by the condition of land in their area, they may serve a notice. The notice shall require such steps for remedying the condition of the land as may be specified in the notice. ... If any owner or occupier of the land on whom the notice was served fails to take steps required by the notice, HE SHALL BE GUILTY OF AN OFFENCE."

So now you know. EDDC may order you to cut your roses, mow your lawn, weed your garden, kill all your birds, butterflies and frogs, and all they need is a few complaints from Britain in Bloom worthies and nodded agreement from a few Britain in Bloom councillors. Over my dead body. And now to Mary Jolly.

Her outburst at the Town Council meeting on August 10 I would liken to being attacked by a budgerigar. Her silliness was rebutted by Clare Crouch on August 22. Outbursts from Councillor Liverton are sadly predictable. He is reported as saying "this is a clear case for enforcement. It is at the entrance to a village and on a main road".

Does Graham know that Sidford starts at the scenic petrol station not at my bungalow? Next he says that the location of my home is irrelevant. Whatever happened to the spirit of tolerance he so often invokes? He did it again at the police meeting - telling long suffering Radway residents how misguided they were.

And how about EDDC accepting that not everyone shares their ideas of amenity improvement - tearing hedges and fields to pieces at Sidford to build football pitches when the rugby pitches are grossly underused?

Mary Jolly is reported as saying she has concern that my garden is near the Byes beauty spot. Buy a map Mary. And who was vice-chairman of the planning meeting that voted through the EDDC football field plans ignoring 61 letters of objection including 30 on loss of wildlife and without reading out one of them? That honour was yours Mary. Why did acres of wild grass and unkempt hedges directly adjacent to the Byes find so many supporters yet a few square metres of my garden is adjudged worthy of prosecution? What a strange little town!

The actions of a few people will ensure only that my views now gain wide exposure.

For the benefit of members of the Coastal Area Planning Committee there are five key issues.

1. Part of my garden is at present a building site. It will be less than wholly tidy until work is completed. Materials are neatly stacked and stored as far from the public highway as is possible given site and other constraints.

2. The creation of a Devon Bank (especially in Devon) is not an offence. Final landscaping of my garden will be delayed until completion of building works.

3. Storage of a caravan or other private vehicle or trailer on private ground is generally outside planning law.

4. Plants grow to various heights. Trees can reach 30 m, roses 3 m and ornamental grasses 2 m. These are generally outside planning law even when used as a boundary to a highway. The choice of which plants to grow and where are matters for each householder. Classification of plants into 'weeds' and others is largely a matter of personal preference and commercial and regional bias. It is irrelevant to logical assessment of amenity.

5. Encouragement of wildlife into 'untidy' gardens is already on the national agenda, much to the dismay of chemical companies, lawnmower manufacturers, shopkeepers and councillors with tiny minds.

(Dr) Stephen J Wozniak

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Front page news in the Sidmouth Herald 1998/99.

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