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After 12 years of inactivity, extension causes unholy row

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legal matters

In 1988, a Mr Bello built a rear extension to his property at 46 New Cross Road in south London.

He did so without obtaining planning permission and with complete disregard for almost every regulation enshrined in the Building Regulations. Not surprisingly, in the same year, the London Borough of Lewisham served a demolition notice on Mr Bello, under section 36 of the Building Act, requiring him to remove the extension, there and then.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the extension remained in place for a further 12 years until March 2000, when the council renewed its efforts to have it demolished. The subsequent court case raised two important points, one practical and one political. The practical point was whether the council could act on a demolition notice 12 years after it had first been served.

The political point was whether the notice should be enforced if the council's motive, after all these years, was not to enforce the Building Regulations but to put an end to complaints by the neighbours of noise nuisance, or to appease the Ombudsman.

The 12-year delay by the council was not easily explained. The first couple of years were taken up with Mr Bello's unsuccessful appeal against the notice, which was finally rejected in 1990. The council then instructed its dangerous structures contractor to demolish the extension. The day they arrived on site, Mr Bello was already there with several of his own workmen. He told the council's contractors that he was about to demolish the structure and that they were not needed. One can only speculate as to what happened next, but on the strength of this information from the owner of the illegal extension, the contractors packed up and went home, leaving the condemned building intact.

The council took no further action for the next decade. During this time the building was used for a variety of purposes. Ultimately, despite its unsuitability, it was used as a form of church. Its use for unconventional religious gatherings generated high levels of noise and prompted the neighbours to complain. Thus the council found itself in an unfortunate position. It considered the building to be an eyesore, built with inadequate fire precautions and thermal insulation such that it was likely to deteriorate and become a danger. The structure was also the source of a nuisance and contravened its policy of reducing the amount of unreasonable noise suffered by residents. It was in no doubt that the local environment would be considerably improved if the building was obliterated from the face of the earth. The council believed, however, that it had been rendered powerless to do anything by its own inactivity and delay.

The residents took their complaints to the Ombudsman, who pointed out that the council might still be able to enforce the demolition notice. In 2000, the council renewed its attempts to demolish Mr Bello's church. Mr Bello appealed to the court on the grounds of delay and improper motive.

The court was reluctant to consider the allegations of improper motive mainly because, as Mr Bello represented himself, he couched his appeal in wide and unspecific terms, including previous allegations of bias, misfeasance in public office and a failure to notify him of the date of the planning meeting. Although the court found that Mr Bello conducted himself with 'skill and moderation', the court rejected these arguments.

As for the delay, the judge found that despite the passage of time, the original notice was good.Unless Mr Bello could show that the council had led him to believe that it would not be enforced, or that he had somehow suffered prejudice, there was no reason why it should not be enforced.

Mr Bello argued that there was general prejudice to those who enjoyed worshipping in his church and that he was too old to rebuild it with proper planning permission. The court pointed out that there may be any number of reasons why the council may not be in a position to enforce such a notice straightaway. Thus, while sympathising with Mr Bello, it held that there was nothing unlawful in the council seeking to enforce the notice, even 12 years late.

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