Campaigners prepare case for Ombudsman over Old Vicarage

By Philippa Davies

23rd Jul 2021 | Local News

Residents of Weech Road are becoming increasingly frustrated by the latest developments relating to the semi-derelict Old Vicarage – saying they're still being excluded from all discussions on the building's future.

They're now preparing to submit a case to the Ombudsman, claiming that the feelings and opinions of people living near the 'eyesore' building are not being considered by the planning authority, Teignbridge District Council.

Several things have happened during the last few months. On November 24, a meeting took place at the Old Vicarage site between Historic England, engineers and officials from Teignbridge District Council and the building's owner, John Farrell. The aim was for Historic England to assess the current condition of the building so that they could advise the council on the urgent work needed to safeguard it in the short term.

The Old Vicarage Action Group say this meeting happened not long after they had asked for a meeting with senior council officials. The group want to make their feelings known on the effects of living close to a derelict, rat-infested building for such a long period, and express their support for Mr Farrell's existing planning application, which would provide a solution. They also want to understand the council's point of view and the thinking behind whatever decision is made on that application. But they say they were told no meeting could take place because of the Covid restrictions.

Historic England's report on this meeting (available on the council's website) said the original house is in better condition than photos suggest, and recommended work to shore it up, cover the roof with sheeting to protect it from rain, and direct water away from the building.

On December 21, local residents noticed that enforcement notices had been affixed to the fence around the Old Vicarage. The Urgent Works notices, issued by Teignbridge District Council, told Mr Farrell to carry out temporary repairs on the main vicarage building and Gig House. Separate notices required him to carry out more detailed work to secure the buildings and prepare them for restoration.

The notices make no reference to Mr Farrell's planning application, which involves repairing the Gig House, removing the cob storey and roof of part of the main building, demolishing the extension on the north elevation and restoring the Victorian wing.

This planning application is the latest of many attempts to bring the Old Vicarage back into use. The sticking point has always been its status as a Grade Two listed building, with part of it dating back to the 17th century. Mr Farrell cannot afford to pay for a full restoration, and his plans involve demolishing part of the old structure so that the rest of it can be rebuilt.

The Old Vicarage Action Group think Historic England has been objecting to the redevelopment plans because it's holding out for a full restoration – but it's not clear how, or when, this could happen. The group also question the logic of restoring – at huge cost - a building that now lies in the middle of a 1970s housing estate, in contrast to the beautiful gardens and parkland that surrounded it in the past.

On January 18, 2021, the group wrote to several Teignbridge councillors as well as the case officer for the planning application, putting forward these views and expressing regret that the local residents had not been given the chance to take part in the discussions on the future of the building. On February 16, the group told Dawlish Nub News they had not yet received any response.

In the meantime, on February 1, local residents had noticed scaffolding going up around the Gig House. The contractor reportedly told a local resident he was doing the work for Mr Farrell, but was not able to give many details. Dawlish Nub News asked Teignbridge District Council if this work was being done in response to the enforcement notices, but was told this information would have to come from Mr Farrell – and at the time of writing he has not replied to an email asking about it.

However, the district council has confirmed that the planning application is still expected to be debated by the planning committee, as opposed to being decided by an officer without discussion. In a statement to Dawlish Nub News, the council said: "Our officers continue to examine the different issues relating to the planning application and it has yet to be scheduled for a committee."

Amid the continuing uncertainty, the Old Vicarage Action Group is now putting together a case for an Ombudsman - an official who is charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints.

In their January letter to the district council, the group said: "Whilst legally, Teignbridge District Council have the power to refuse or grant permissions, at no time have the feelings of the residents and ratepayers been considered. By failing to take into account the views of the residents, and also by failing to approve, refuse or refer planning proposals, we postulate that the the Council has been negligent in its duty to the public."

One concerned local resident added that in her view, Historic England's actions relating to the Old Vicarage have shown no evidence of its role – described on its website – of 'promoting a positive and collaborative approach to conservation'.

She said: "My argument is that in the years since 1988 the Old Rectory has been allowed to steadily decay to the point where it is a dilapidated eyesore. This is the responsibility of someone, and someone who needs to be not only called to account but also needs to ensure matters are rectified."

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