Conan Doyle’s house ‘Undershaw’ has now been unoccupied for over 9 years and during that time the owners (Fossway Ltd) presided over vandalism and dilapidation taking it from a hotel, from which the hoteliers did not wish to vacate, to the sorry state we see today. The speculator owners’ objective to gain a very valuable planning permission to over double its value with a right to create at least 8 separate dwellings. In the speculator’s last attempt, now comprehensively declared unlawful by High Court judges on 3 separate occasions, it should be apparent to even the most non-legal person that Waverley Borough Council’s decision of September 2010 was unlawful. However, in your main front story of last week you quote a ‘council spokesman’ as saying “the legal advice we received was that the original High Court decision was incorrect”. To this I can only say they could not have read the long reasoned judgement very closely for on a number of points the decision was held to be clearly unlawful. This debacle has cost Waverley Borough Council probably in the region of £50,000, and they must in future get only the best and most experienced personnel on cases of this nature, and at a very early stage. I notice in the columns of your paper that Councillor Taylor-Smith, who held the important planning brief until after the initial High Court decision, has now moved to another portfolio for Waverley Borough Council.
Putting on one side all the enormous attention this matter drew from the world’s media – including the front page of the Los Angeles Times and Public Channel No. 1 of Russian TV – it is surely apparent that the public do not want this house and grounds divided into separate units; the speculator should have been told this many years ago. Speculation by its very nature is a risk, and he has comprehensively lost. The speculator and his local planning consultants should be told not to waste any more time with dreams of division and new buildings, but to get this listed building back into repair immediately.
Waverley Borough Council also say in your piece of last week that “they have been proactive in trying to preserve the building” – unfortunately their efforts, like their law efforts, have dismally failed. I briefly summarise what has, over the last 7½ years, been allowed by Waverley Borough Council to stay uncorrected in this building:
1. All lead stolen from the roof has been replaced by very temporary bitumen felt.
2. The large heraldic window with Doyle’s family crests is still broken over 7 years after sustaining damage.
3. Doyle’s antlers he affixed over the front entrance have been stolen, and many windows smashed.
(To compound the damage caused by thieves and vandals, the owner – with the knowledge of Waverley Borough Council – has continued and, very much accelerated, the damage to this house by the following)
4. The southern third portion of the front elevation of the carriage block has been replaced by some modern materials totally mismatching the remaining third of the building – the new walls and windows completely clashing with the original remainder. As a Grade 2 listed building the owner should have sought Listed Building Consent (LBC) for this work – he did not do so.
5. All kitchen and bathroom fittings, and much pipe-work, have been stripped from the house – all again without LBC.
6. The single storey kitchen building – part of the house at the rear and, like the carriage house, all part of the Listed building – has been totally demolished. This was a building of over 600 sq. ft. and also provided a fire escape access for the hotel. Brickwork adjoining this demolished building now exists, hacked and broken with the cavities exposed to the weather – all again without LBC.
7. Finally, and probably the greatest disaster to befall this building, all plaster has been hacked off the walls of the top (2nd) floor, leaving this top floor like a bombed-out war zone. As a building specialist I can categorically say that essentially only the ceilings, and then only in places, where damaged by water ingress after the loss of the lead from the roof. This historic plaster to the walls was examined by me carefully before the event and was essentially in good condition. However, without (of course) LBC it has all been hacked away from the walls.
I have asked (in writing) Waverley Borough Council if they are going to prosecute the owners and they advise me that they are not going to do so. I have a letter to this effect from Mary Orton, Chief Executive, Waverley Borough Council. Thus we have a situation where Waverley Borough Council recently bulldozed down in another part of the borough, an extension built slightly larger than the permission, whereas here, where there are seemingly numerous breaches, they are prepared to do nothing. It is to be hoped that owners of other listed buildings in the borough do not take note of this example as a precedent.
The executive (councillors) of Waverley Borough Council should now take action in this matter and order the planners to reactivate the Repair Order issued on the speculator on the 7th November 2008, to put the property into repair under their Listed Building obligations, and in the event of non-compliance, instead of giving the owner exactly what he required (2010 permission), serve a Compulsory Purchase Order, as regulations state, on Fossway Ltd. However, it would appear at the moment, from your article last week, that Waverley Borough Council have still not absorbed the lesson, as they state:
“We visit the site regularly. The last time we visited was at the end of October. We are content it is being adequately maintained” (are they blind?!). “Our focus will be working with the landowner on achieving a solution which provides the right balance between …” Thus it can be seen that the councillors must now tell the Chief Planning Officer that no further dialogue is pursued with the speculator other than the re-activation of the Urgent Repair Notice of November 2008 and that there will be absolutely no development of this site.
Would Jane Austen’s Chawton, Gilbert White’s Selborne, Winston Churchhill’s Westerton, Charles Dickens’ Rochester, Henry James’ Rye, etc. countenance division of these houses so that the dining room is in one house, the drawing room is a second, and the study in a third, with destruction of the stables and well – as was passed by Waverley Borough Council for Undershaw? I do not think so.
The houses of other writers I mention have put their locations on the world literary map with resultant tourist advantages – the same could happen for the regeneration of Hindhead.
There are several people interested in buying the house – it is not large in comparative terms for the type of dwelling (7,500 sq. ft.) – and making it into a family home. One person is very keen, has renovated literary houses in the past, and wants to spend in the region of £1.5M purely on sympathetic restoration work, at no cost to the public purse whatsoever. He has already obtained planning permission from Waverley Borough Council (August 2010) for the use of Undershaw as a single dwelling. He is prepared to pay a reasonable price for the property, but, of course, to reflect it having absolutely no redevelopment potential whatsoever and requiring, under its listed status, about £1.5M of repair expenditure. He will willingly step into the shoes of Waverley Borough Council if CPO procedure proves necessary. He has recently written to the Chief Executive of Waverley Borough Council to this effect, without, to date, a reply.
Thus the property will be restored, limited public access will be allowed, and in the long-term all options will be available for this iconic world-renowned house.
To the executive (councillors of Waverley Borough Council), the ball is now very much in your court to exert your total control over a proved failed planning department (in this matter), and not allow the officers of that department to “bail out” a speculator, who has presided over almost total dereliction of one of Britain’s great literary houses.
J.M. Gibson FRICS, (in Arts, Building & Valuation Divisions) and author/editor of 5 books on Doyle – including the prize-winning Bibliography of A. Conan Doyle For the Oxford University Press