Should we report her to the authorities?
Question: We have lived in the same house for over a decade and have always got along well with our elderly neighbour, a widow whose husband died before we moved here.
We kept an eye on her during lockdown, buying her groceries and so on, and she has always seemed really grateful. Recently, she had a fall in her house and she told me that her daughter was going to come to live with her to keep an eye on her, which seemed like a great idea.
However, the daughter arrived and then, without warning, so did the builders, who began extending and converting the garage, which sits between our homes, into a flat for herself.
The worst aspect is they added a window, which now looks straight into our garden, and extremely bright outdoor lights which are really intrusive.
I called over to discuss the work when it was ongoing, but my neighbour’s daughter was quite rude to me and just said the garage had always been there and she had to have a window to look out of.
My husband is furious and says they are in breach of planning laws and wants to report them to the authorities, but I am torn. I don’t want to fall out with the neighbours and I suspect even if we reported them, the authorities would do nothing, so what’s the point? What should I do?
Answer: This is a sticky situation. On one hand, you want to protect the privacy and value of your property. On the other hand, you want to maintain good neighbourly relations.
Personally speaking, I’ve always valued good neighbourly relations above all else. Even with the best house, within the best postcode, hostile neighbourly disputes are exhausting. And let’s be honest, nobody wants to feel like they’re coming under scrutiny every time they put the bins out!
At the same time, good neighbourly relations are built on the bedrock of mutual respect. Your neighbour’s daughter or rather, your new neighbour, seems not to have got the memo in that regard. At the very least, she should have told you she was planning on carrying out building works, if only to prepare you for the noise.
For a legal point of view, I shared your dilemma with Ciarán Leavy, Partner and Head of Commercial Litigation at Lavelle Partners. He says you can convert a garage attached to the rear or side of a house for domestic use, provided it has a floor area of less than 40 square metres and provided it is already attached to the existing dwelling house.
If it is more than 40 square metres or if it is not attached to the existing house and is set to be used as a separate dwelling house, then planning permission should have been sought.
If planning permission was required and not obtained, then Leavy says you would be fully within your right to report the issue to the local authority to investigate.
If planning permission is not necessary for your neighbours’ extension, a complaint can still be made to the Planning and Enforcement Department of the relevant local authority regarding the window, says Leavy. The complaint should set out how the window has “caused an immediate loss of amenity to your home and furthermore, how it is severely affecting your privacy”.
“The local authority can then investigate and, if they deem it necessary, can issue an enforcement notice against your neighbours, which may result in the development being ceased and/or at least the window being removed.”
Nonetheless, Leavy strongly advises you try to resolve matters amicably before going down the contentious route, “even if that means making concessions in some instances”.
I also shared your dilemma with Chris Dunne, who is a member of the panel of mediators at One Resolve. He provided a framework for navigating this situation, which starts with defusing the anger your husband is feeling “as decisions made in the fog of emotion are prone to error”.
Once you have reached a point where you are both “responding to the situation, not reacting”, he recommends taking out a sheet of paper and exploring the range of potential outcomes in terms of preference, best to worst.
Explore your concerns about the construction and your relationship with your neighbour separately, he says. For example, one side of the sheet of paper should look at your options in terms of the garage conversion and might include “leave as is”, “mitigate the impact of the window using fence or trees” and so on. The other side will list the possible outcomes in terms of your relationship with your neighbour and might include “we are relatively friendly”, “we are co-operative”, “we are in conflict” and so on.
Once you have considered all the possible outcomes, he suggests arranging a meeting with your neighbours and potentially bringing along an objective third party to facilitate the conversation.
Of course, it’s also worth considering any preconceived ideas you might have about your neighbours’ intentions. As Nat O’Connor in Age Action points out, your neighbour may not be as enthusiastic about the garage conversion as it seems.
“Anyone taking on the role of carer for an older person should be careful not to overstep their authority. A carer is not ‘in charge’ of an older person,” he points out.
“The daughter in this case should be supporting her mother to live as independently as possible, and that includes finding out about her mother’s neighbours and supporting her mother to maintain the obviously positive relationship she has enjoyed in recent years.
“The situation should never come to a trade-off between getting support from a carer or neighbours,” he adds. “If her mother had been properly consulted, it is likely she would have wanted her daughter to obey the requirements of planning law and, just as importantly, to talk to her neighbours before having building works done to see if the works could be modified to avoid upsetting them.”
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