The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) has denied a senior officer asked a local farmer to “make a contribution to his Christmas fund” to get a controversial planning application approved.
The allegation was made by Coverdale farmer Andrew Avison, who appeared in court today over a breach of planning rules for a shed he built so high it was nicknamed the ‘Giraffe House’ by local villagers.
Mr Avison, 41, built the 13-metre high structure in 2014 after a barn previously on the site burnt down.
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However, he failed to get planning permission for the building, which was almost five metres higher than the one it replaced and is one of the highest buildings in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The farmer applied for retrospective planning permission from YDNPA.
However, this was refused and officials ordered him to demolish the building or reduce its height to the same as the barn it had replaced.
Mr Avison failed to comply with this enforcement notice and he appeared in Northallerton Magistrates’ Court today where he pleaded guilty to the breach.
Mr Avison, of Middlefields Farm, Melmerby, was fined £750 and ordered to pay legal costs of £1,000 and a surcharge of £75.
At the court hearing, Mr Avison’s solicitor, Yvonne Taylor, read out a statement from the farmer which outlined the long history of the farmer’s dealing with the national park authority.
In the statement, Mr Avison claimed that before a planning meeting in which the retrospective planning application for the new barn was to be assessed, he was waiting outside the meeting room when Richard Graham, YDNPA head of development management, ushered him into a private room.
The farmer claimed Mr Graham asked him for a bribe and in return he would make sure the planning application was “sorted”.
Mr Avison said the planning official’s exact words word that the farmer should “make a contribution to his Christmas fund”.
The farmer said he refused, telling him: “I’ve never dealt with the devil and I wasn’t about to start now.”
Mr Avison said he then left the room and told two YDNPA members – Cllr John Blackie and Cllr Roger Harrison-Topham – what had just been said.
He said neither looked surprised so he thought they must have been “complicit”.
At today’s court appearance, the solicitor acting for YDNPA said the park authority vehemently denied the allegation.
Speaking about the sentence and the allegations after the hearing, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s chairman, Carl Lis, said: “Mr Avison was given ample opportunity to comply with the terms of the enforcement notice but chose not to do so.
“The building at Middlefields Farm is an eyesore. It is one of the tallest agricultural building in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and is totally out of keeping with other buildings in Coverdale.
“Today’s court proceedings do not affect the status of the enforcement notice. It still stands, and I urge Mr Avison to take action to reduce the height of the shed.
“If Mr Avison does nothing, the authority can either take further action through the courts, or employ a contractor to demolish the building – and send him the bill.
“I hope that this case serves to retain public confidence in the planning system.”
Mr Lis added: “During the course of today’s proceedings, Mr Avison alleged that a senior planning officer approached him seeking a bribe. He also alleged that two members of the authority were complicit.
“He made us aware of these allegations earlier this year – and we carried out a thorough investigation in response.
“This investigation concluded that the allegation was not only scurrilous but malicious. The allegation has caused considerable distress to the officer. It has also cast a shadow on the reputations of two long-serving and well-respected local politicians.
“Mr Avison’s decision today to make his allegation public in court was clearly nothing more than a desperate and ill-advised attempt to try to wriggle out of a simple obligation to comply with national planning laws. Mr Avison has resorted to pure invention and embarrassed himself.”
Cllr Blackie also dismissed Mr Avison’s version of events, describing it as a “pack of lies” and a “fairytale”.
He added that nobody had done more to help Mr Avison and farming in general in the Dales than himself.
The court heard that such was its prominence in Coverdale, that Mr Avison’s barn became known locally as the Giraffe House.
Park planners refused the retrospective application because the height and size, and materials and siting of the building were “detrimental to the quality of the landscape”.
The farmer made two appeals; one against the refusal of planning permission and one against the enforcement notice, but these were both dismissed by the Independent Planning Inspectorate.
Mr Avison gave evidence in mitigation ahead of the sentence.
He told the court that the previous barn had burnt down in February 2014 after a contractor chopping straw had allowed the exhaust of a tractor to get too close to a hay stack.
The court heard the farmer, his father and the contractor were joined by neighbouring farmers to clear the barn of cows and equipment as the fire spread.
He said the fire happened in February and he urgently needed to build a new barn to keep feed and livestock in.
He denied the new building was a flagrant breach of planning rules, adding that the previous building had been too low for HGVs to tip feed and he had consulted suppliers how high a new building should be before work started.
He said: “You get the opportunity through a force majeure to put up a building that’s fit for purpose and you do it because you need to do it.
“It was to try to make something good out of a very bad situation – the fire.”
Asked whether he would comply with the enforcement notice and reduce the height of the building or knock it down, the farmer said he would work with YDNPA to find a way forward.