Police Apology Leaves County Council Isolated
When two powerful institutions both decided to back one party to a dispute without properly evaluating the evidence, the result was denial of justice.
In the case of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts, a couple in their 70s living in Maesybont, Carmarthenshire, that denial of justice is a little eased by a recent full unreserved apology from Dyfed Powys Police – an apology which Trisha and Eddie say goes far beyond any statement so far made by Carmarthenshire County Council, the other authority in the case.
Trisha Breckman has now received a full apology from Dyfed Powys Police — but she notes that Carmarthenshire County Council has not yet followed suit.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Welsh Government member for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, and county councillor Cefin Campbell both believe that Trisha and Eddie have suffered because of intransigence by the county council, and have supported them through difficult times.
The police apology, signed by Simon Prince, the Chief Constable, and Christopher Salmon, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys, includes these words:
“It is quite clear that you have been severely let down by the authorities (my emphasis) 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.”
Despite this apology, the repercussions of 11 years of officialdom’s hostility remain, and include financial problems which the couple cannot easily resolve because Trisha and Eddie have advanced in age, Trisha to 71 and Eddie to 78.
The couple bought Pant y Castell Fach – a cottage, outbuilding and over six acres — in 2003. Trisha was looking forward to a quiet life on the smallholding with its pretty cottage, and enough land for her elderly Connemara mare Minnie and for the cattery she hoped to establish – and for which she obtained planning permission. The couple paid mostly in cash but also took out a mortgage to fund construction of the cattery.
The pretty but not-so-tranquil setting of Pant y Castell Fach.
The cattery was never built, because of problems which emerged as soon as the couple moved in, and which left Trisha feeling too nervous to remain in the cottage on her own. This meant that Eddie, who had been intending to live in Sussex for part of the week and repay the mortgage with earnings from his taxi business there, decided he had to live in the cottage full-time, so that Trisha would not be alone.
Why had Trisha become anxious? She was embroiled in a dispute with their neighbours, a dispute which took over her life, and which diminished the pair’s financial resources so much that the only way they can repay the mortgage is to sell the property.
But their long-running history of dispute with the next-door landowner, which would have to be declared to an intending purchaser, has depressed the market value.
Injustice is Blind
Above Pant y Castell Fach, across a field, lie the yards of Blaenpant Farm, which when I visited in September 2015 was quiet and peaceful, with just one heavy goods vehicle parked in the yard. What could possibly be amiss?
The twilight zones of planning law are amiss. Twilight can hide, in its long shadows, changes of land use from agricultural to industrial.
Blaenpant Farm completely surrounds Pant y Castell Fach. The farm even includes the top of the access track from the B4297 road to Pant y Castell Fach, over which Trisha and Eddie have a right of way.
For Trisha and Eddie, Pant y Castell Fach was to be their country retreat, and they expected a degree of peace and quiet, but instead found themselves living next to a heavy haulage business operating without planning permission – a business which the county council’s planning department omitted to notice. In the opinion of the then-Planning Enforcement Manager, Brian Canning, and the Head of Planning Services, Eifion Bowen, there was no breach of planning regulations, and no industrial business operating without the need to pay business rates (because farms are exempt). Instead, officers in the planning department accused Trisha and Eddie of making baseless complaints. Eventually the pensioner couple were put on a list of persistent complainants and for a time were stopped from contacting council staff and councillors, with the exception of one designated person, the then-Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert.
The council’s verdict that the scale of industrial activity on the yard at Blaenpant was acceptable for a farm meant that both council and police took the side of the then-occupants of Blaenpant, Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas when they, enraged that Trisha and Eddie had complained about industrial operations on Blaenpant, embarked upon a campaign of harassment.
Film evidence of the harassment was presented in television documentaries, but failed to persuade the authorities to reconsider their positions. 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, 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.
“It demonstrates to me that there is very little genuine farming activity at Blaenpant and that other, possibly unauthorised, commercial activities are occupying the land and the buildings reserved by planning conditions for agricultural use.”
This contradiction of the ‘Blaenpant is a farm’ position maintained by Carmarthenshire’s planning department was reinforced in 2012, when a verdict of maladministration from the then-Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, had to be accepted by the county council, but to Eddie and Trisha it seemed that acceptance was grudging, and they did not notice any change in the council’s attitude to them.
The 188-page anonymised report from the Ombudsman contains, as Appendix 3, comments from the former Planning Enforcement Manager for Carmarthenshire County Council.
The Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman, in his reply to the draft report, that
“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.”
His reply maintained that “we acted with integrity in not being intimidated by this woman, who would seek to move heaven and earth to get her way”.
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 earlier complaints made by the previous occupiers of Pant y Castell 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, but the Planning Enforcement Manager did not think that any weight should be attached to this statement. In his view, the late Karen Bowen Thomas, who died at the end of 2008, would have had a clearer idea of what had been going on.
In what seems a revealing statement, 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.
He also claimed, falsely, that Trisha had been convicted of assaulting Karen Bowen Thomas.
In his view, Trisha was a “complete nutcase”, and the Ombudsman’s investigation was “a worthless process”.
The Head of Planning Services was the immediate superior of the Planning Enforcement Manager, and he did not consider that the council had failed to do something it should have done. He did, though, suggest to the Ombudsman that planning enforcement was not the best process for mediation, and therefore it could be helpful to have a more formal mediation service.
In the absence of any mediation, this is what happened.
When Trisha and Eddie first became concerned about the scale of haulage and other industrial operations on Blaenpant, the council’s planning department advised them to get some evidence. So Eddie and Trisha started filming the lorry movements. The film evidence convinced ITV Wales’ current affairs programme Wales This Week, which reported on the dispute six times between June 2005 and March 2008, and also persuaded BBC1 Wales, which broadcast The Good Life Gone Bad in October 2012. The programmes are on You Tube for anyone to watch.
The Thomases had arrived at Blaenpant in 2001, and the lorry operations, branded KBHS Ltd, got under way on the site. A former owner of Pant y Castell Fach, John Lawday, logged the movements and informed the council, and so did John Bleasdale, who lived nearby at Ffynnon Goch. Mr Lawday sold up soon after the Thomases arrived next door, after 26 years in the cottage. The next occupant was Anne Gifford, who quickly put the property back on the market and was gone in the space of a year. She sold to Trisha and Eddie.
Coming from the south of England, Trisha and Eddie had no idea that complaints about their neighbour’s haulage activities were accumulating in the county council’s planning department, and they say nothing was uncovered during legal searches. The fact that the vendor wanted to move away so quickly might have rung alarm bells, but did not. The fact that the top section of the access track was on Blaenpant land should have prompted questions but did not. In the year after they moved in, Trisha and Eddie became aware that all was not well. “It was actually within a few months of moving here, planning officer Ceri Davies informed me there had been problems here,” said Trisha. “He was here to discuss our plans for the cattery. Nigel Stringer of the Countryside Council for Wales also visited the first year and told us the same thing. In addition, an officer of the Country Land and Business Association informed us that ‘there have been lots of problems here’.”
Alarm bells now sounding loudly, Trisha made a Freedom of Information request for data on complaints relating to Blaenpant which had reached the council’s planning department, and was given a file documenting complaint after complaint. But according to the council, Blaenpant Farm was merely a contact address for a haulage business operated elsewhere.
When Andrew Thomas and Karen Bowen Thomas found out, somehow, that Trisha and Eddie were asking questions about the haulage business – and about quarrying and lorry maintenance work at Blaenpant — retaliation started. Karen unfortunately died prematurely in 2008 and so is unable to comment, but incidents are on film.
An old heavy goods vehicle looms above Trisha’s and Eddie’s home.
A huge removals lorry appeared on Blaenpant land by the boundary with Pant y Castell Fach, becoming a major element of the view from the cottage. A couple of pigs called Eddie and Trisha were penned outside a bedroom window, and Karen would sit with them making personal comments which, when heard on film, sounded threatening. A large board on stilts was erected blocking the view from a bedroom. But worst of all, the Thomases narrowed the access track from 15 feet to nine, erected motorway-style crash barriers on either side of it, and put in two gates which they threatened to lock. Trisha and Eddie felt like prisoners.
Incidents on the access track, including Andrew Thomas letting a horse loose down the track into Trisha and Eddie’s garden, led to police action but, bizarrely, against Trisha, who was arrested on five occasions, and on the horse incident day she was taken away in handcuffs because police believed Karen Thomas’s accusation that Trisha had assaulted her. The film evidence reveals Trisha to be frightened and panicked, but not the aggressor. Police later did drop the charge.
Trisha never has been convicted of assault, but Andrew Thomas has. In 2006 he assaulted two young women in Carmarthen, who were trying to stop him from haranguing Eddie Roberts. Eddie, working as a taxi driver, was in his cab at a taxi rank, and Andrew was outside the car. The two young women gave evidence and Andrew Thomas emerged from the court a convicted man.
First haulage lorries, then buildings and other development — for which there were planning applications, no less than 16 between 2002 and 2011, all but one for agricultural or equestrian activities, and none for industrial uses. Planning officers did in fact worry about a lack of agricultural activity on the farm (although not to the extent of taking Eddie’s and Trisha’s complaints seriously) and rejected an application for an implement store and hay shed 99 feet long and 50 feet wide, but permission was granted on appeal. In 2009, Andrew Thomas applied for permission for an area of hardstanding adjacent to the Carmel transmitter mast, on the south-western side, to be used for storing agricultural vehicles and implements. Carmarthenshire County Council refused, one reason being insufficient farming activity at Blaenpant to warrant it. So Mr Thomas made an appeal, but as we have seen, an inquiry heard by planning inspector Clive Cochrane turned it down.
When in 2012 the Ombudsman found in Trisha and Eddie’s favour on those issues where clear evidence existed, and against Carmarthenshire County Council, the council delayed putting the report before any councillors for several months. The full council never was shown the report. Instead, an edited version was presented to the planning committee.
Andrew Thomas had, after a three-year civil court case ending in 2008, been obliged to widen the access track and to take away one gate and leave the others open, to give unimpeded access to Pant y Castell Fach and remove the sense of claustrophobia which the line of gates had created.
But nothing has been done to compensate Trisha and Eddie adequately for the emotional trauma they suffered after the council cast them as villains in the drama.
Flow of Planning Applications
Planning applications for buildings on Blaenpant streamed in to Carmarthenshire County Council and included the following.
In April 2004 came an application (E/06708) for intended permitted development on Blaenpant, construction of an agricultural implement store and hay shed, 99 feet by 50 feet. This did not get the go-ahead, and Karen Bowen Thomas was told to submit a formal planning application. She did so in July, asking (E/07519) for a store for farm machinery and hay, but the planning committee said no. The refusal letter, from Head of Planning Eifion Bowen, explained that there was “insufficient justification for the proposed development at this location due to the lack of agricultural activity at the farm unit” and also because the applicant had failed to demonstrate that the shed was reasonably necessary for agriculture.
So back in 2004 the council was well aware of a lack of agricultural activity at Blaenpant.
Karen Bowen Thomas appealed, and the appeal was upheld, albeit with conditions, such as a stipulation that the building be used for storage only. The shed was built, with the help of another permitted development (E/09576) from the council, for the excavation of quarry overburden and rock and the use of the material for levelling the ground on which the building would be constructed. Far from being used for storage, the building housed horses, as subsequent photographic evidence showed.
Next, in October 2005, Mr and Mrs Thomas applied (E/11544) to convert a former cowshed to a farm office and tack room, and received permission. In August 2006, they applied (E/14109) for a detached garage, which was allowed. They were not so fortunate with a much larger application (E/14145) the same month, for a cow shed 97 feet by 30 feet, which was refused for the same reasons as the agricultural implement store two years earlier: lack of agricultural activity and no demonstrable need for a large cow shed.
After a minor application (E/14648) for roof alterations on another building, which was approved, the cow shed application was resubmitted in all but name, this time (E/17981) as a notification of permitted development and in the guise of a hay and implement shed, a little smaller at 78 feet by 30 feet. This would be the second large implement and hay store, on a farm where there was a “lack of agricultural activity”. The planning department agreed that this was indeed permitted agricultural development not requiring planning permission, and so therefore there was no need for the councillors on the planning committee to consider the application.
The first and second buildings had a total length of 177 feet, and sufficient indoor space to store a substantial number of tractors or other vehicles.
Storage buildings on Blaenpant Farm, Maesybont. Trisha Breckman’s home is below the end building, to the left. There is a quarry to the right of the buildings.
The applications continued. In January 2008 Mr and Mrs Thomas requested permitted development rights (E/18176) for a new road, opening into the access track to Trisha Breckman’s and Eddie Roberts’ home and continuing across a field up towards the Carmel telecommunications mast. Planners told them that formal permission would be necessary, and the application was withdrawn — but by summer 2015 the road was completed, without permission.
Also in 2008, in September, Mr and Mrs Thomas asked (E/19928) for a replacement agricultural building, which was allowed as the footprint was only slightly larger than the existing structure.
In July 2009 Mr Thomas, who by now was bereaved, applied retrospectively (E/21494) for a hardstanding area adjoining the Carmel Transmitter Mast, for the “parking and storage of agricultural vehicles and implements”, but this was turned down and the subsequent appeal was dismissed. As noted above, the items stored by the Carmel mast had included skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, excavating and bulldozing equipment, containers, a fire engine, and tarmacadam planings.
The reports, logs, investigations, photographs and films documenting the disputes between Trisha and Eddie and Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas, and between Trisha and Eddie and officers of Carmarthenshire County Council, form an archive in themselves, containing more detail than can be summarised here. The Ombudsman, who had access to this library of information and to the principal participants, came to conclusions which Carmarthenshire County Council resisted.
In response the council officers, who include the Chief Executive, Mark James, opted to try and bury the Ombudsman’s findings — under the tarmacadam, so to speak.
I contacted the county council’s press office at 9.13am on Friday October 9th, with these three questions:
- Will Carmarthenshire County Council also issue a complete apology to acquit Mrs Breckman from blame for the breakdown in relations with Mrs and Mrs Thomas which resulted in Mrs Breckman’s arrests? (The Ombudsman required the county council to issue an apology, but in Mrs Breckman’s view it was very restricted and failed to absolve her from all blame.)
- Will all councillors be given access to the Ombudsman’s full report? (The Ombudsman required this to happen, but I have been informed that only an edited version was offered, and then only to members of the planning committee.)
- Has the county council amended the procedures around planning enforcement, so that when there is a profound disagreement between a complainant and an enforcement officer, an independent arbitrator is brought in at an early stage? (This was a suggestion made by Mr Eifion Bowen, former Head of Planning Services, and reported by the Ombudsman.)
A reply came at 1pm on Monday October 12th, in the form of a statement by Mark James. The statement did not, in my view, respond to any of the questions I had asked. Mr James said:
“The most recent outcome of an investigation (August 2015) by the Ombudsman on a complaint by Mrs Breckman concluded: ‘I believe that the Council has taken the appropriate steps in investigating the breaches of planning control reported and identified and issuing proceedings to either restore the land to its former condition or, in the case of the unauthorised track, consider its planning merits through the submission of an application. Again, I cannot identify any evidence of maladministration in the way in which the Council has acted.”
I had not asked about an unauthorised track. On the matters of events leading to Mrs Breckman’s arrests (for which the police have now apologised); of the 2012 Ombudsman’s report being withheld from the full council; and of any plans to bring in independent arbitration — silence.