Scrap dealer who harassed neighbours scoops up their home
See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 26 2016, pages 10-11
Thirteen traumatic years are drawing to a close for Trisha Breckman (72) and Eddie Roberts (79) of Maesybont, but there is no happy ending. Their neighbour Andrew Thomas of Blaenpant Farm, a scrap metal wholesaler and owner of AJT Recycling Ltd, is buying their Pantycastell Fach smallholding in a sale forced by Trisha and Eddie’s legal team at a mediation which they thought was to be about their civil claim for damages.
At the mediation session to discuss their civil claim against Andrew Thomas, it was made clear to Trisha and Eddie that if they did not agree to sell their home to him, and thereby avoid going to court, their legal insurers would very probably withdraw cover. “I did not want to sign,” said Trisha, “but felt pressurised to do so.”
She hopes for a six-month delay before moving out to allow Eddie, who will be 80 in November, to recuperate from an imminent operation.
Meanwhile, she is focusing on a claim for compensation against Carmarthenshire County Council, for failures in the planning department which, she says, worsened their plight over the course of 13 years.
Trisha and Eddie, who bought the pretty 6½ acre holding in 2003, cannot repay their mortgage because all their plans were smashed to smithereens when conflict with their neighbour, whose land encircles Pantycastell Fach, absorbed their energies and money, and prevented them from building the cattery they had intended to run, and for which they had taken out the mortgage.
Andrew Thomas’s late wife Karen Bowen, who died in 2008, bought Blaenpant in 2001. She was a director of Karen Bowen Haulage Ltd, operating tipper lorries which Trisha and Eddie noticed travelling to and from Blaenpant, and stored there too. Karen Bowen did not have planning permission to site lorries at Blaenpant, which was and is supposed to be a farm, and therefore exempt from business rates. “Neither of the commercial firms, Karen Bowen’s haulage business or Andrew Thomas’s recycling operations, paid business rates at Blaenpant for the years 2001 to 2011,” said Trisha. “This was stated in a letter I received from our solicitors.”
Andrew Thomas quarried and destroyed part of the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation, which is supposed to receive maximum protection, and in 2006 was convicted of assaulting two young women who were trying to stop him from confronting Eddie Roberts in Carmarthen. He and Karen had learnt that Trisha and Eddie were asking the county council questions about the haulage and other industrial operations at Blaenpant.
This led to a campaign of harassment, in which Andrew and Karen
- Installed motorway-style barriers to narrow the access track to Pantycastell Fach, making it inaccessible to large vehicles such as a fire engine, and erected two additional gates across the track, which his wife Karen Bowen owned but over which the occupants of Pantycastell Fach cottage have a right of way. “The gates were locked at times, trapping us,” said Trisha.
- Drove a loose horse down the track towards Trisha. Karen Bowen called the police, who arrested Trisha and took her away in handcuffs. Trisha was arrested on four other occasions at the behest of Karen Bowen and Andrew Thomas.
- Sited a large removals lorry on the boundary between Blaenpant and Pantycastell Fach, right outside the cottage windows.
- Kept pigs called Trisha and Eddie outside a bedroom window and loudly insulted them by name.
The harassment is documented on video and in TV documentaries — six on ITV’s Wales This Week between June 2005 and March 2008, and BBC1 Wales in October 2012. Trisha and Eddie’s county councillor , Plaid Cymru’s Cefin Campbell, and their Assembly Member at the time, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, tried hard to intercede with the planning department, but made slow progress.
Police apologised unreservedly
Dyfed-Powys Police eventually, in 2015, apologised to Trisha for treating her as a wrongdoer when, all the time, she was a victim. The police apology, signed by Simon Prince, the Chief Constable, and Christopher Salmon, then the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys, included these words:
“It is quite clear that you have been severely let down by the authorities and for the part played by Dyfed Powys Police in this we apologise whole heartedly.”
In addition to the apology from Dyfed-Powys Police, Trisha Breckman received a further apology from Christopher Salmon, as follows:
“We are apologising for all the hurt and pain caused throughout your experience, including any implied attack on your integrity.
“I do not want to lose the force of an unbounded apology. However it absolutely applies to any unsubstantiated comment or accusation, implied or otherwise, against your integrity. We acknowledge they are hurtful, embarrassing and deeply personal. For that we are sorry.
“Officers will continue to do all they can to help you with any ongoing issues. You are not accused of anything and your integrity is not in doubt.”
Christopher Salmon was no fan of Carmarthenshire County Council, which treated Trisha and Eddie as vexatious complainants. His parting comments, when he left the police commissioner post he held from November 2012 to May 2016, included:
“Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors.”
Council knew more than it admitted
Carmarthenshire’s planning department, then headed by now-retired Eifion Bowen, refused to take seriously Trisha and Eddie’s concerns about unlicensed haulage operations, illegal quarrying, and a long series of ‘agricultural’ planning applications for industrial uses. At least, they made no admissions of concern in public. ITV’s Wales This Week, in June 2005, got hold of an internal email from Brian Canning, Planning Enforcement Manager at the time, who wrote: “Someone is going to get injured or worse if this carries on…. I am not sure if at present they are operating from the site wholly to the letter of the law…”
The council were also fully informed of the Thomases’ unlawful industrial activities by a former owner of Pantycastell Fach, who moved out in 2002 after 26 years, and whose complaints about noisy unauthorised operations in 2001 and 2002 were on file in the planning department.
In 2010 a planning inquiry by inspector Clive Cochrane determined that an area of land on Blaenpant Farm, away from the yard and adjacent to the Carmel telecommunications mast, was being used unlawfully to store a long list of non-agricultural equipment – industrial skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, container body shells, excavator and bulldozer plant, a fire engine, tarmacadam planings and more –and must be returned to agriculture. Later Mr Cochrane, by then retired, told the BBC that he could confirm everything that Trisha and Eddie had said about operations at Blaenpant lacking planning permission
Commenting on the main farmyard of Blaenpant, Mr Cochrane said in his inquiry report:
“During the inquiry, copies of two VOSA (Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, since replaced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) licences were produced to show that Blaenpant Farm is an operational base for six lorries and five trailers owned by two different haulage companies. I understand that the appellant also operates haulage and scrap metal businesses at other licensed vehicle operating centres in the Swansea area.
“The licensed operations and the use of the yard and buildings as a haulage depot, storage of related items and HGV maintenance area, combined with the keeping of horses, is not an agricultural use of the existing buildings and open yard. This appears to be in contravention of the conditional planning permissions for the buildings and may be unlawful without further planning permission for an apparent change of use.”
Planning Enforcement Manager claimed Ombudsman was biased and insulting
Two years later, in 2012, the then Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, wrote a blistering report on the Blaenpant affair, concluding that that the county council was guilty of maladministration. The 188-page report from the Ombudsman contains, as Appendix 3, comments from the former Planning Enforcement Manager for Carmarthenshire County Council. His name is not given but the officer in the role in the early 2000s was Brian Canning.
The former Planning Enforcement Manager did not mince his words. Commenting on the Ombudsman’s draft report, he wrote:
“I consider the contents of your report in relation to my involvement in this very long-running and difficult case to be biased and lacking in any evidential basis. You insult my professionalism [and that of the Head of Planning] in stating that our ‘dislike’ of this woman (Trisha Breckman) would influence the manner with which we dealt with her many and varied complaints over the years.”
He went on to challenge the validity of the Ombudsman’s findings, and said “It is my fervent hope that Carmarthenshire County Council seeks counsel’s advice in order to vigorously challenge your recommendations in this matter”, concluding “I did not want to get involved in this matter from the outset. I have absolutely no interest in your final conclusions so would be grateful if you would refrain from contacting me again.”
The Planning Enforcement Manager had told the Ombudsman’s enquiry that he could not recall complaints about industrial activity at Blaenpant, made by the previous occupiers of Pantycastell Fach. He could not recall seeing a log of HGV-related activity completed at the end of 2001, he could not recall if he had been aware that former occupiers had said they were threatened by Mr Thomas after complaining about the extent of haulage activities at Blaenpant. He did not recall if Blaenpant was licensed as an operating base for one HGV, but he did recall that the operating centre for the lorries was elsewhere. He never saw anything to suggest that a change of use from farming to industry had occurred. He did not recall being shown photographs of lorries, he could not recall if he was offered video footage of HGV activity during a meeting with Eddie Roberts and his surveyor. He could not recall a planning report of September 2006 which referred to the primary uses of the site as being equine and a lorry base, and he believed that statement to be incorrect, based on a snapshot assessment of the planning officer and going beyond what the officer was in a position to say.
Mr Thomas had said under oath during the 2010 planning inquiry that for ten years he had been using the farm as a base for five or six lorries, plus trailers, but the Planning Enforcement Manager did not think that any weight should be attached to this statement, because in his view, the late Karen Bowen would have had a clearer idea of what had been going on. In fact, Karen had already admitted in court, in 2006, that she ran a haulage business at Blaenpant without planning permission.
The Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman that he was extremely principled and would never desist from taking action on the basis of some other ulterior motive, for example, because an officer was being intimidated.
Exonerated – but about to lose their home
The county council placed Trisha and Eddie on a list of persistent complainants and for a time they were prevented from contacting council staff and councillors, with the exception of one designated person, the then-Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert.
Despite Dyfed-Powys Police, the former Police and Crime Commissioner, a planning inspector and the Public Services Ombudsman all accepting that Trisha and Eddie’s complaints were justified, they are losing their home to the neighbour who intimidated them – and who continues to break planning rules.
Habitat destruction and land reprofiling at Blaenpant has altered part of the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation beyond recognition. Special Areas of Conservation are a European Union designation for areas of the highest ecological value. Natural Resources Wales is insisting on a land restoration plan over the next ten years, with progress to be monitored three times a year in April, July and September. The scheme has been agreed in principle with the planning authority — Carmarthenshire County Council — and with Mr Thomas, and aims to restore both wet and dry heaths, and natural grassland species.
Yet in summer 2016 the land has been closely mown, inhibiting protected species from regenerating.
Mr Thomas has not responded to an invitation to comment.
Indifference and hostility
The indifference to the fate of an important area of protected landscape matches the indifference and hostility which Trisha, Eddie and their supporters have met over many years.
“I have fought tirelessly for twelve years whilst suffering unprecedented abuse and intimidation from our neighbour, to prevent the loss of our home. I have tried desperately to communicate with the council in order to have our dire situation remedied. It has been the consequences of the denial of the truth over so many years that has led to the loss of our home. I have also made many attempts over these years to gain help and recognition from Ministers at the Assembly who similarly knew the details of our case and have shown utter indifference to our situation. I would like one of the many involved in our case who have been fully aware of the seriousness of our situation to explain to me why they did not care enough to prevent this terrible injustice, and why, when we did absolutely nothing wrong, have been made to pay such a huge price,” said Trisha.