Council flexes its purchasing power

A High Court decision giving the green light for Kingston Upon Thames Borough Council to compulsorily purchase a property which it claimed had been neglected by its owner adds a new dimension to the compulsory purchase powers of local authorities.

The decision has raised the question of just how far councils can go in imposing their stamp of cosmetic correctness on areas under their control.

Solicitor Chris Wright, of Twickenham firm Christopher Wright & Co, who acted for the owner in Doreen Edna Miles v The Secretary of State for the Environment & The Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames, says he is considering an appeal. He brands the decision by Deputy Judge Malcolm Spence QC a "very Draconian" development and says it appears to extend Town and Country Planning Act compulsory purchase provisions into the realms of aesthetic considerations.

The case involved a neglected semi-detached house in a Surbiton cul-de-sac which the judge said had been allowed to fall into a "deplorable condition" over a period of 20 years.

He said that after years of attempting to get the owner to carry out repairs the local authority took compulsory purchase proceedings, which were upheld by the Environment Secretary after a local inquiry.

It was argued on behalf of the owner, however, that the Environment Secretary had acted outside his powers in giving the go ahead to the council to buy the property against the wishes of the owner because the move was not taken for "proper planning purposes".

However, the judge said he was satisfied that the planning inspector and the Environment Secretary had regarded the council's moves – which he said were aimed at arresting the neglect and lack of maintenance which was harming the character and appearance of the neighbourhood – as a planning purpose.

He said it had acted "in the public interest", there had been no error of law and, in those circumstances, upheld the order.

He also rejected argument that there had been a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects EU nationals from interference with their right to peaceful enjoyment of their home and possessions.

Wright believes it is the first case in which a local authority has been allowed to compulsorily purchase a property because of its state of repair.

He points out that the property is not a listed building but a suburban semi which, although it is run-down, he claims is not in as bad a condition as the council has indicated.

"If this decision is taken to extreme conclusions it could give local authorities power to compulsorily purchase a property if they did not like the colour someone had painted their house," he says.

"It seems to us the judge is saying that the condition of a property is a 'planning purpose' or 'amenity' and local authorities use the compulsory purchase powers of the Town and Country Planning Act for essentially aesthetic considerations. That is quite a quantum leap and it is a point on which there is very little authority."

He continues: "The only case remotely close to this one is that of Sharkey v The Secretary of State for the Environment. But the point in that case is rather different.

"That was a case of taking gypsies on to the land. The owner of the property in Surbiton has not put caravans or taken gypsies on to the land. It is a negative here in that the complaint is over what she has not done rather than what she has done."

He adds: "Structurally, the property in this case was sound and the inspector made a finding to that effect. There are pigeons in the back bedroom but it is not a property in need of major rebuilding. Put new windows in, tidy the garden and it would pass muster quite reasonably.

"It is a very Draconian measure to make a compulsory purchase order in circumstances such as these."