Secret home, hidden from council, must be demolished

Sarah Coles
Squirrel Cottage
Squirrel Cottage

Roy and Gail Coles, from Lichfield, have been ordered by the council to demolish the incredible home they hid on their country estate for an astonishing eight years. They went to great lengths to keep it hidden from the council, and when they eventually spotted it, they demanded it should be torn down.

Why did dad have to demolish this playhouse?

According to The Daily Mail, Roy (80) and Gail (52) bought five barns within Tamhorn Court estate near Lichfield in Staffordshire. They moved into one of them, and made a fair bit of money converting the others and selling them off. However, they invested their money in a separate property development, and when the financial crisis hit, they struggled to pay their £600,000 mortgage.

Roy Coles
Roy Coles

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The Daily Telegraph reported that they then decided to rent out their home to cover the mortgage, and build another property tucked away in the grounds - called Squirrel Cottage. They hid it among trees, and designed the outside of it to look like a barn - with no windows on the back of the building, and shutters that could be put in place to hide the windows and doors at the front. They added green tiles to the roof to help it blend in - which can be seen in the small circle below (the larger circle shows the couple's official home).

The cottage and the couple's official home
The cottage and the couple's official home

This was no ordinary shed in the woods, it was a high spec luxury home. There were two double bedrooms (one of which was en suite) and a large kitchen diner complete with an Aga. It came complete with heating and running water, and was their home for eight years.

However, the couple could never receive planning permission for a home on the green belt, so they decided to keep it under the radar. They still had all their post sent to the barn conversion, and stayed on the electoral roll there, in an effort to demonstrate to the council that this remained their home. The council came round in 2008 and 2012, but failed to spot the property, so left them alone.

Unfortunately for them, someone in the vicinity was unimpressed, and they informed the council. They went to court, where they argued that they had built it in desperation, and that if they moved back into one of their other properties, they would lose the rental income that's paying their mortgage.

They also cited the fact that under planning regulations, if nobody complains about a property in the years after it is built, then retrospective planning permission should be granted. However, the council argued that hiding the property meant this rule did not apply (under a rule that came into effect in 2012).

The council ordered demolition at that point, and after losing an appeal, the couple must destroy their property. They also have to pay £14,000 in costs.

The 'hidden property rule'

The general rule is that there are certain changes to your property that require planning permission - and certainly building a whole new property in the grounds of your home would count as one of those changes.

If you make a change, and fail to get permission, you can apply for retrospective planning permission. The council will assess it on its merits and either grant permission, grant it as long as you make certain changes, or refuse permission and demand you demolish the property.

However, one of the most well-known loopholes in planning law is that if you make a change that you should have got planning permission for, and nobody notices or complains for a period of four years, the council loses the right to take action against it. However, in the wake of the high profile case of Robert Fidler, who built a castle and hid it in a haystack, a separate law was introduced in 2012 which makes an exception to this rule - if a property has been deliberately concealed.

This couple's experience demonstrates how risky, ruinous and downright stressful it can be to try to build without permission, so if you have a project in mind, it's always best to err on the side of caution and check with the council.