Destruction of wild gardens ordered under the Town and Country Planning Act (section 215, s.215).
This is one of the original SeeRed webpages yet it has proved enduringly popular. Householders in the UK have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms for refusing to 'tidy up' their gardens. More recently (November 2005) there has been an outcry over instructions that street muggers who use 'only minimal force' should not be sent to jail - they should get a pat on the head instead perhaps?
Earlier in 2005, John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued new guidance on 'best practice' for Councils in pursuing Section 215 cases. This is as a pdf document - size about 500k, download time 2 minutes. John Prescott and his department were renowned for large scale environmental vandalism - a Press report from November 2005 sums up his thuggish behaviour.
Widespread abuse of the planning system is allowing developers to get away with building thousands of houses without contributing to infrastructure. One of several articles published in early 2006 is reproduced here. All of which confirms that local councils and their over-zealous jobsworth officials should be told to concentrate a little more on environmental problems that really matter, and maybe a little less on a few square metres of ecologically beneficial 'weeds'. Many environmental groups including the RSPB now advocate leaving small or large areas of garden to grow 'wild' because of the benefits to wildlife, especially birds. Lack of insects is now thought to be one reason why some bird populations are falling so steeply.
Nevertheless, some councils seem to enjoy using s.215 powers 'proactively' - issuing notices and demanding repainting of buildings even when no complaints from members of the public have been received. Indeed, they are encouraged to do so by a Labour government who have become renowned for trying to control almost every aspect of the lives of citizens. Since the issue of Prescott's 'Best Practice Guide' some councils seem to have been pursuing a policy of issuing or threatening to issue as large a number of s.215 notices as possible. Maybe this has something to do with performance targets for staff or maybe some councils think it gives them kudos to have their name cited as one of the leaders in this field. The parallel with the police - who have been severely discredited by chasing 'performance targets' instead of real criminals is only too obvious. To their credit, in mid 2008, some police forces dropped the Home Office schemes for assessing police performance by 'tick boxes' and have gone back to doing their jobs properly - and in a manner that might regain them some of the support they have traditionally enjoyed from Middle England.
Of equal concern is that minor council officials can act on malicious or frivolous complaints from people who simply don't like their neighbours or who view any departure from their own (often prissy) lifestyles as verging on sinful. Thus, in an area renowned for its close cropped lawns and ecological sterility, a small overgrown garden can be pursued with both vigour and venom. It does not help justice that the grounds for formal appeal are limited - and rely on local magistrates who probably hold the same 'conventional' views as the complainant(s). In all, the pursuit of minor issues by local councils utilising the heavy handed approach of s.215 notices represents an affront to justice - but since when did that worry either local or central government?
In 2008, a new large scale threat to local environments emerged under the guise of 'eco-towns'. Central government has threatened protesters with new 'fast track' planning procedures. In the midst of all this licensed thuggery, many local councils are still stuck in the 'Britain in Bloom' age and respond to complaints about 'weeds and untidiness' even in small back gardens with threats of prosecution - and even before listening to both sides of what is often a minor local difference of opinion on styles of gardening. Chester City Council are one example. Interestingly, farmers seem to be completely immune from prosecution - rusty relics of farm machinery litter the countryside, fences are broken down and never repaired and 'weeds' grow freely on acres of set-aside and other land without so much as a murmur in the corridors of power. Maybe the fact that so many farmers are councillors has something to do with it?
What needs to be done is either to repeal s.215 completely or issue new guidance to dimwit 'jobsworth' officials so that they cannot so readily seek to misuse legislation to persecute ordinary and inoffensive householders who choose to grow native and environmentally beneficial plants in their own gardens. Magistrates also need to become better educated - and they need to stop automatically siding with local councils in these and other disputes. In the 'Best Practice' document issued by John Prescott's office (see link above) there is gloating self-congratulation both that s.215 can be used a a 'threat' against people and that 'very few appeals succeed'.
The following letter appeared in the Sidmouth Herald on 3 Oct. 98 during the first year of Sidmouth's Britain in Bloom debate. It highlights the attitude that should be taken when dealing with wilting councillors. Subjecting these narrow minded people to ridicule and sustained publicity can expose them for the cowards and bullies that they really are.
Front page news in the Sidmouth Herald 1998/99.
Any persons knowing of Local Councils who have misused their powers to order destruction of 'wild' gardens in the interests of municipal tidiness or on the pretext of concern for public health are invited to contact the SeeRed author (short emails and no attachments please).
One case in Derby is a cause for concern. A man received a four month prison sentence for ignoring a court order to tidy up his garden. This followed a protracted dispute with Derby City Council. One letter in the local paper spoke of the legal system having gone "totally loopy" because "low-lives who stalk the streets, who rob, mug and maim get away with slaps on the wrists". The man sent to prison had been variously described in the local paper as a bit of an eccentric but polite and educated. His garden had become an extreme example of a 'wilderness' - but filled also with a large quantity of rubbish.
Recently, another environmental protester took on Derby City Council and was severely treated by the courts. His crime was to hang a banner from his home protesting about an expensive set of multiple traffic lights that have brought chaos to a complex junction. Of course, councillors continue to maintain that their scheme is wonderful! This case will be reported in another section of SeeRed.
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