Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation takes refugee-sheltering family to court over home extension ‘too close to wall’

A refugee-sheltering Letchworth family could face bankruptcy after the Heritage Foundation took them

A refugee-sheltering Letchworth family could face bankruptcy after the Heritage Foundation took them to court over a home extension it says is too close to a wall. - Credit: Archant

A refugee-sheltering Letchworth family could face bankruptcy after the Heritage Foundation took them to court over a home extension it says is too close to a wall.

The house in Bowershott as it appeared in 2009, before the extension was added. Picture: Google Stre

The house in Bowershott as it appeared in 2009, before the extension was added. Picture: Google Street View - Credit: Archant

George and Cathryn Trudgill, of Bowershott, received planning permission from North Hertfordshire District Council before starting the work on the two-storey extension to accommodate their four foster children – including two unaccompanied refugees – and Mrs Trudgill’s elderly mother.

But the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation rejected a retrospective application for consent, citing its own design principles which include requiring a gap of at least 2m from the plot boundary. The self-funded charitable organisation is now seeking a court injunction ordering the Trudgills to remove it.

The Heritage Foundation argues that it has to do the best thing for all of Letchworth, and that approving this extension it considers unduly large would create a precedent forcing it to accept future applications – in their view putting at risk the garden city’s character.

The Trudgills said before yesterday’s hearing began at Luton County Court that if the judge rules in favour of the Heritage Foundation then the estimated £200,000 cost of removing the extension would bankrupt them and leave them and their dependents homeless.

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Their foster children include a 14-year-old girl from Eritrea and a 16-year-old Iraqi Kurd boy, neither with family in the UK.

Judge Melissa Clarke presided yesterday as Heritage Foundation strategic planning chief David Ames gave evidence from the witness stand.

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Representing the Trudgills, barrister Geraint Jones put much emphasis on what he considered the subjective nature of the Heritage Foundation’s design principles, which he alleged the foundation board could use to block whatever it pleased.

He put it to Mr Ames: “Great play is made in the evidence of this case about the importance of a consistent decision-making process.

“The outcome appears to be that, in effect, anything that breaches any of the design principles in the view of the foundation board gets refused. Is that not the case?”

Mr Ames replied that the foundation approved 95 per cent of all applications, adding: “Each case is considered on its own merits, but guidelines are the lead.

“The gap of 1m we feel, in this case, is not sufficient to meet the aims and aspirations that we have.”

Judge Clarke interjected during this line of questioning to ask: “How can design and aesthetics lack a subjective element?”

The Heritage Foundation’s design rules formerly allowed gaps of 1m between buildings and property boundaries, but this changed to 2m in 2009 – effectively meaning a 4m gap between each property, something the foundation says helps to maintain the garden city’s unique character.

But Mr Ames rejected Mr Jones’ suggestions that consent had been withheld in this case solely because of the distance to the boundary, saying the extension was an overdevelopment that would have been turned down in any case.

Referring to the two prior extensions to the house since Mrs Trudgill acquired it in 1999, Mr Ames said: “It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, in terms of this further addition. It’s not sympathetic to the original design.”

He added: “In our view this is a step too far.”

Mr Ames stressed that it was important to remember what Letchworth as a whole needs.

Mr Jones countered: “The town as a whole needs people to be carers and foster carers – it needs to give them space.”

Mr Ames replied: “Absolutely. We’re allowing extensions in some instances – some people tell me not to allow extensions anywhere. The town needs to evolve.”

Mr Ames told the court that the Heritage Foundation works with homeowners to ensure extension plans are put together in a way that works for everyone, and expressed regret that in this case this had not happened.

Barrister Martin Dray, acting for the Heritage Foundation, said his clients had written to the Trudgills in May 2013 – after they made their planning application to the district council – to ask them to send an application for the foundation’s consent.

The Trudgills’ case, he said, was that they had telephoned the Heritage Foundation and been told that they could put in an application retrospectively – something they left in the hands of an agent.

The Heritage Foundation says it then sent two further letters on the matter, the second of which was a final warning that the Trudgills do not recall receiving. The family then received district council planning permission in July 2013, and proceeded with the work on the house – which was built in 1955.

The extension was almost finished on April 6, 2014, when Heritage Foundation estate development officer Chris Shipman passed the site by chance and noticed the work going on.

He looked into the matter, and on April 16 that year the Trudgills received a letter from Mr Shipman ordering them to stop work while consent was finalised, with the warning that “if you continue these works may be at risk”.

Mr Dray said the Trudgills carried on with the work, albeit while applying for retrospective consent through their agent. The Heritage Foundation turned this down, and in 2015 began the process of litigation that has led to this court case.

Mr Ames stressed to the court that retrospective applications for consent had to be considered on the same merits as prospective applications.

Mr Jones said the Trudgills rejected the assertion that they had knowingly gone ahead without the necessary consents in an attempt to evade the system.

The case continues.

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