Two landowners have again been told to stop unlawfully storing building materials in protected woodland after a planning inspector upheld an enforcement notice from Wokingham Borough Council.
Dean and Candice Jules had appealed against the notice which the authority issued last November following a visit by its officers to land at The Coombes, off Coombes Lane in Barkham.
But now inspector Graham Self has dismissed their appeal, agreeing that the Jules' use of this site amounted to unauthorised development and the council was within its rights to tell them to cease.
Mr Self ordered them to pay the authority's appeal costs and refused an application for the council to pay theirs. All items, except those legitimately needed for forestry, must be removed by 4 August.
A strong case for protecting valued woodland
The council's evidence included photographs from late last year and early this year, showing objects including timber, metal spikes and poles, furniture, concrete blocks, windows, a barbecue and pallets.
Mr Self witnessed similar scenes when he inspected the site, spotting flooring planks, windows, cupboard doors, a steel sink, shower tray, a glazed door, a wheelbarrow and concrete rubble. Some items were kept under a tarpaulin and, he said, "certainly did not appear to be in transit".
The appellants claimed they weren't responsible for this, but he says this "contradict[ed] their own evidence" as they had admitted leaving the items in written statements so this was "not believable".
He disputed that the items were linked to forestry and that the storage was only "temporary" as the site had clearly been in use for months, not the 28 days allowed by planning law before consent is needed.
The couple argued the items belonged to another landowner who, they said, owned a large part of the site so should also have received an enforcement notice. However, Mr Self accepted the council had researched owners and, in any case, Mr and Mrs Jules had accepted responsibility for the breach.
They said the items were removed within weeks of the inspector’s visit but he said this didn’t make the enforcement notice invalid. They queried its wording but Mr Self responded that it "tells recipients... what is alleged to have been done wrong and what is required to put matters right."
He concluded: “What is alleged to have occurred amounted to development, for the purposes of planning law. Planning permission was not obtained and the development constituted a breach of planning control.”
Fighting to make planning fair for everyone
The case is the latest in a lengthy history of enforcement and legal proceedings against the couple relating to The Coombes. These include an order to remove a timber building, which was built without planning permission in 2018 and was being used as a home, and to clear up the resulting materials.
The couple appealed but an inspector found in the council's favour. The case went to the High Court in 2019, where a judge stated they were "reckless" in finishing the work and moving into the building against the terms of a court injunction.
Cllr Lindsay Ferris, executive member for planning and local plan, said: "We're pleased but not surprised that an inspector has seen this latest breach of planning rules for what it clearly is and dismissed any arguments to the contrary, which were not backed up by evidence.
"We have a strong track record of taking successful action against anybody who carries out works without permission, which is only fair on the vast majority of residents who work within the rules.
"We will continue to defend this site from unlawful development, as we do across the borough, and would remind anyone considering building work to seek our planning team's advice if they aren't sure whether it needs consent. We also strongly advise would-be landowners to be wary of claims about development potential and not take these at face value as the consequences can be costly.”
Taking every step that’s available
The council has been actively protecting woodland at The Coombes since late 2018, when it was marketed by several outlets with the misleading suggestion that it could be developed. At least eight plots were sold to buyers including Mr and Mrs Jules and the council obtained the High Court injunction against the couple soon afterwards.
This forbade them from bringing or storing building materials on the site, carrying out building works, setting up mobile dwellings, installing roads or other engineering works or doing anything to the trees.
The following year, the council passed a protective measure known as an "article 4 direction" which removed the right to carry out certain works without first seeking permission - beforehand, these works were considered "permitted development".
This covers putting up, maintaining or amending any kind of gate, fence or wall, or doing anything which could be considered building work.
The land is also a designated Local Wildlife Site and is ancient woodland subject to a Tree Preservation Order, meaning landowners must agree any tree works with either the council or the Forestry Commission.
Cllr Clive Jones, the council's leader, said: "We've declared a climate emergency and are committed to doing all we can to tackle climate issues and reduce air pollution.
"While reducing emissions is clearly the priority, trees play a big part in preserving air quality and capturing carbon so we will do all we can to protect wooded areas as part of our wider approach to looking after our environment."
More from Wokingham Borough Council
Stay connected to the communities around you. Enjoy the latest news, updates and highlights straight in your inbox. Subscribe to our Wokingham Borough Connect newsletters now.