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In response to my eight year old's request for a more sophisticated joke, I asked: 'Why do the goblins have big ears?' The answer: 'Because Noddy wouldn't pay the ransom' provoked an unexpectedly challenging debate about the meaning of the word 'ransom', writes Kim Franklin.

While it seems that my children had an innate understanding of the concept of 'blackmail' long before they knew the word for it, they struggled with the notion of holding someone to ransom.

Their follow-up questions - including: 'How much did the goblins want?' and 'Why wouldn't Noddy pay?'

- prompted ideas for a story considerably beyond the scope of traditional Enid Blyton fare.

The concept of ransom also troubled the courts in a case concerning the development of a derelict site within London's Paddington Conservation Area. The scheme involved buildings of up to 22 storeys, including a supermarket and 300 ats. On the corner of the site, but outside it, was No. 283 Edgware Road, owned by MR Dean & Sons. Dean believed that No. 283 was effectively a 'ransom strip'.

This belief was supported by both the developer and Sainsbury's, who were vying with each other to pay £5.6 million - twice the market value - for the property. Dean had every justification for believing that if the developer wanted to proceed it would have to pay a king's ransom.

Dean was not surprised, therefore, when, following an inquiry, the planning inspector found that retaining No. 283 would diminish the proposed scheme by its incongruity, screening the supermarket and leaving the shops removed from the face of the development.

However, Dean was far from pleased when, on appeal, the Secretary of State found that it would nevertheless be possible to tolerate No. 283 remaining, particularly if it was likely to be acquired and demolished in the foreseeable future. The Secretary of State agreed that the potential ransom value disappeared with the grant of planning permission, but went on to grant permission all the same.

Dean challenged this decision in MR Dean & Sons v First Secretary of State (Judgment 11.01.07), arguing that ransom value does not only arise where land is required for access, but also to make a development more acceptable in planning terms. It was therefore entitled to expect the ransom to be paid.

The Secretary of State had deliberately acted to make the ransom disappear and therefore improve the likelihood of No.

283 being acquired. This, it argued, was an improper purpose and a breach of its human rights.

While the judge accepted that ransom value was relevant for valuation purposes, he refused to accept that planning decisions must maximise or preserve ransom value.

Financial considerations could be relevant to planning decisions only if they related to the character and use of the land. Any loss of value did not affect Dean's peaceful enjoyment of No. 283. The decision to tolerate No. 283 was therefore a planning judgment with which the court could not interfere.

So one answer to the question: 'Why wouldn't Noddy pay the ransom?' could be 'because Big Ears wasn't worth it after all'.

Kim Franklin is a barrister and chartered arbitrator at Crown Office Chambers in London. Visit www.crownofficechambers. com

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