More than a needle in a haystack

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The business of real estate is a matter of building relationships of trust and co-operation, therefore honesty and ethics are very important. When buying or selling real estate, people are investing a significant portion of their financial worth accumulated over many years. Consumers rely on the expertise, skills, knowledge, competence and integrity of REALTORS®.

All 94,000 REALTORS® throughout Canada must adhere to a REALTOR® code that outlines accepted standards of conduct for members of organized real estate. The first article in this code says  REALTORS® need to be informed about the essential facts affecting current market conditions, including being familiar with zoning and planning regulations. The article below illustrates the reasons an individual should have consulted a professional before building his dream castle. It comes from the March 2008 issue of the real estate publication REM and was written by Nigel Burnham.  

English castle hidden in a haystack  

An English farmer has a fight on his hands to save a castle he built without planning permission behind a 40-foot-high haystack.

For six years, Robert Fidler kept his dream home — a mock Tudor building complete with ramparts, turrets and a replica cannon — hidden from neighbours in Salfords, Surrey, by an enormous barricade of hay and blue tarpaulins. 

Fidler, 59, started work on the castle in 2000, finally moving in with his wife Linda and their son Harry, 7, in 2002. Local councillors had no idea the secret — and completely illegal — building existed until the barricade of several hundred eight-by-four-foot bales were taken down four years after its construction when Fidler removed them in August 2006.

The father of six said he built the structure “out of despair” after applications to construct a home on his farm were repeatedly turned down by planners. He said he hid it from view in the belief that, if there were no objections within four years, it would become legal under English planning law. But he is under siege from council planners, who have told him the castle will have to be demolished. 

Fidler, who has five children from a previous marriage, said he is devastated. “I can’t believe they would want to demolish this beautiful house. To me the council’s attitude is vandalism. But I’m not worried because I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong.

“I think a reasonable period for planning applications to be answered is within a matter of months. My applications have very often gone into years and quite often not been determined,” he added.

“If they had got on with it I would have had a reasonable chance to get on with my life. I have learned over the years the only way to get planning permission is to use alternative methods, perfectly legal but risky, that allow room to do this.”

Fidler said the family moved into the house on Harry’s first birthday, “so for the first few years of his life he grew up looking at straw out of the windows. We thought it would be a boring view, but, in fact, many birds nested in the straw and feasted on the worms. We had several families of robins and even a duck made a nest and hatched 13 ducklings on top of the bales. What we had anticipated being a very uninteresting view out of our windows turned out to be a fascinating garden with all sorts of natural visitors.”

After building the castle on the site of two grain silos at a cost of £50,000, Fidler and his wife went to extraordinary lengths to keep it secret, including keeping their son Harry away from playschool the day he was supposed to do a painting of his home in class. 

“We couldn’t have him draw a big blue haystack,” said Linda Fidler, 39. “People might have asked questions.”

When the hay bales came down, however, Fidler’s dumbfounded neighbours were horrified and reported him as soon as they saw the mock castle. 

“Nobody thought anything of it when they hay went up,” said one. “It was presumed he was building a barn or something like that. It was a complete shock when the hay came down and all of a sudden this castle was there.”

Fidler’s problems began in April 2007 when, thinking he had beaten the planning system, he applied for a certificate of lawfulness, which can be granted if nobody objects to a property built without planning permission within four years. Fidler argued that the castle is now legal because it has been “substantially completed” for four years, and said he is determined to protect it. 

But Reigate and Banstead council said the four-year period after which the building would be allowed to stay is void, because nobody had been given a chance to see it. 

Fidler was issued with a planning enforcement notice in March 2007 and ordered to demolish the building and return the land to its former use. He has declined to do so and the matter will now be decided by the council’s planning inspector, who could give the Fidlers as little as six months to tear the castle down. 

A council spokesperson said: “Mr. Fidler has built the house without planning permission, not sought retrospective planning permission and now claims it is legal because it has been up for four years. His case is that the building was substantially completed more than four years before the issue of the notice, having been deliberately constructed and concealed in a large haystack. The council is unconvinced that it can be properly said the house in question was completed while encased in straw. 

“We don’t think the four-year rule applies because it had been hidden behind bales of hay.”

Fidler, who has appealed the enforcement notice, started fighting the order at a public inquiry at Reigate Town Hall. He is fighting the borough council over 12 enforcement notices in total, which include the construction of a go-kart track on his 195 acres of land. 

After the inquiry, if the British government’s Secretary of State grants permission for the development, all enforcement notices issued by the borough council will be quashed. 

However, should the ruling favour the borough council, Fidler and family will have six months to move out and pull their castle down.