Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Anyone who bought a house near Straitgate Farm "have only themselves to blame"

An Ottery St Mary Town Councillor has repeatedly claimed that residents around Straitgate "must have known all about [the threat of quarrying] when they purchased their properties". Would they really "have known full well that [AI] owned the land and one day would extract minerals from it"?

It may have been common knowledge to some local people, particularly farmers, that Straitgate Farm was owned by AI, but to others and those moving into the area from further afield it was not.

A prospective house purchaser would normally instruct a solicitor to ensure good title and to uncover any issues that might affect the enjoyment of their property. A conveyancing solicitor is expected to advise their client that the Local Authority Search is performed only against the property they are purchasing, not against adjoining land or the wider area, and that they should therefore contact or visit the local authority to ascertain what plans there might be for the locality. Indeed, a solicitor who does not advise a client of the limitations of the local search can be held liable for negligence.

A solicitor would not necessarily be expected to make enquiries, or advise the purchaser to make enquiries, of the Mineral Planning Authority, unless forewarned in pre-contract documentation, even for a property next to open farmland.

If a buyer had received such advice from their solicitor and visited EDDC, would they then have found out about Straitgate Farm from the Local Plan? Not necessarily. Since 2004 Straitgate has not been in DCC's Minerals Local Plan. Before that it was highlighted as a Mineral Consultation Area. Prior to 1979 the area again had no designation.

Could a buyer have made their own enquiries? Of course, but with all manner of things on their mind when moving house and with a solicitor to ensure the property is unencumbered, they might be forgiven for not suspecting that a nearby dairy farm could be harbouring a future sand and gravel quarry, or that English China Clays had bought the below surface rights of the surrounding land.

Generally, a prospective buyer cannot hope to know the owner, the intentions of that owner, or the permissibility of those intentions, for every piece of nearby land before they buy a house. The number of house purchasers in the area in recent years unaware of the quarry threat have demonstrated as much. Just as people living along the HS2 route have found out, home ownership can be a 'can of worms'. In their case they can at least attempt to claim compensation if their property is blighted; people living next to a sand and gravel quarry foisted upon them by Aggregate Industries cannot.