Tuesday 27 September 2016

Farmer who hid castle behind straw bales says he can't knock it down as bats have moved in

Ellie Steafel

Published 10/11/2015 | 10:59

Photo: PA
Photo: PA

A farmer who hid his illegally built four-bedroom castle behind straw bales claims it cannot be knocked down because it is home to protected bats and newts.

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The High Court heard how Robert Fidler hid his property from the council for years behind a giant wall of bales, but has now been given an injunction ordering its demolition.

Mr Fidler, 67, argued that he would be breaking European laws if he demolished the house as required by a court order without establishing the possible impact on "roosting" bats at the property.

He said on Monday that an ecological survey conducted in June had established the presence of bats and newts around the property.

Photo: Ali Scarff/The Telegraph
Photo: Ali Scarff/The Telegraph

Mr Fidler added that he was no longer the owner of the property, having sold it to a buyer earlier this year who allowed him to stay in the house - though he now faces eviction.

It is alleged the farmer hoped by concealing the house at Honeycrock Farm in Salfords he could exploit a loophole that meant if a construction was uncontested for four years authorities could not touch it.

He argued the only reason he built the property in 2000 was because planning authorities in Surrey failed to acknowledge an application to convert an existing property for nine years.

Mr Fidler and his family moved in in 2002 but it was later discovered by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council who ordered its demolition in 2007.

The Planning Inspectorate dismissed his appeals but last November he was granted temporary planning permission for a maximum of three years - this was then withdrawn by former Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.

The council, which had to take Mr Fidler to court after he refused to comply with court orders and an injunction ordering him to knock it down, said the case has cost it £50,000.

Mr Fidler told the court: "What I want to make clear to this court concerning my actions of complying with the order, is that I complied thoroughly until the presence of bats and newts was confirmed.

"I started a demolition process within the 90-day period, but came across what I can only understand to be a criminal matter."

Explaining the statute, which he came across on bats.org.uk, Mr Fidler explained: "This is, apparently, a European law, which is over and above any English or local authority statute or rule.

In Britain, as in Ireland, all bat species and their roosts are legally protected 

"I understand from the website that if there were any endangered species threatened by actions of either demolishing the building or the garden wall, that it was a very serious offence."

Mr Fidler said the survey established the property had "all the ideal things where bats are likely to be foraging."

It added that the "prime bat habitat" could be impacted by any demolition process.

Mr Fidler said he had written to the council but they have failed to respond.

He accused the council of having "no interest at all in their responsibilities to wildlife.

"They did absolutely nothing, even when I told them I had found the problem.

"What is more serious, is that whether they acknowledged this survey would take weeks or months, they still applied to this court to put me in prison for not doing something they clearly knew they could not do themselves.

"This is something I can only described as blackmail, saying 'you will go to prison unless you comply with this criminal act.'

I have got a choice. I either go to prison if I do knock it down, or I go to prison if I don't."

Stephen Wales, for the council, accused Mr Fidler of "deliberately disobeying the injunction order."

Mr Fidler denied the allegation, and added: "I don't have any right to comply with it any more, I'm not the owner. So it's not even relevant."

He accused the council of "abusing" their power and their argument was "dishonourable, misconstrued, fraudulent" based on a "pack of lies."

"My claim is that the council's inaction and lack of response about the bats unfairly placed me into what they believe is a contempt of court - in fact the very thing which the council is now prosecuting me for," Mr Fiddler said.

He added that this was part of the council's "morbid desire" to remove him from the property.

The case continues.

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