William Lyttle was the Mole Man. He was the person who had this obsession with digging tunnels under his house in Hackney.
He started in 1960 as he wanted to create a wine cellar. But for some reason the original wine cellar wasn’t big enough and he started to dig some more. Eventually the basement become a warren of tunnels large enough to hold three cars and a boat and possibly the winery for the wine cellar. During the process he damaged the adjacent pavement and neighbouring properties including a 450V cable. He even reached down deep enough to reach the water table – maybe he was planning on creating a lake for the boat.
Eventually the council had to step in to stop him damaging other people’s properties through his activities. When he made no effort to stop the work nor to fill it back in he was removed from his own home in 2009 and re-housed in a flat elsewhere. He was also banned from re-entering his own property, partially because it was now deemed unsafe and uninhabitable and partially to stop him doing more digging.
Though he was deprived of living in the property he owned by the state I think this is one of the few occasions where it is right for the state to step in. This because other people’s property was being damaged and affected by William Lyttle’s actions.
William Lyttle has now died, in June 2010, and he left behind the property and unpaid debts of £350,000 caused by the council’s legal bills, the cost of propping up the property and his re-homing.
This legacy has now been passed on to his heirs who have inherited the debt. They have instructed the firm of Fraser and Fraser (of Heir Hunters on BBC1 fame) to handle their case. To pay it they either have to use their own money or use the proceeds of selling the property. To maximise the amount of money they can recover to pay the not insubstantial debts the plan was get planning permission on the now dilapidated house with no roof and the propped up with acro-props to knock it down and build a block of flats which made use of the basement. As it is, the house would be lucky to make £200K due to it’s state. So the only solution would be to get planning which would increase the sale price to around £500K which allows the heirs to pay of the debt.
But planning permission has been denied.
I should say at this point that the house was originally built in the 1800s for the De Beauvoir family, a large land owning family, and was a large 20-bed mansion. So it should be acknowledged that it has some history. It’s possibly the only thing that gives some meaning to the conservation area.
The reason for denying the planning permission is because knocking down the property, which is on the verge of collapse by itself, would result in the “loss of a building of townscape merit” within the De Beauvoir Conservation Area.
So because the conservation officer is so dead set on keeping the building at all costs he will actually initiate the destruction of the house. That’s because the William’s heirs will not put any money into keeping something which would stop them from being able to sell the property and pay off the debt. The conservation officer is also blocking the payment to the council of £350K. All on the principle of keeping a historical artefact which no longer has any meaning to anyone except possibly the conservation officer.
The area was so important that it was only granted it’s status in 2008. So it’s not really a historical conservation area. It’s an area where the council decided, without any public consultation, that no change should be made to the outside of properties to keep it’s special character of garden walls, railings, door cases, original windows, ridge tiles, etc. The residents will gain some benefit as the prices of their houses will increase because of the conservation area though in return they will have to put in planning requests for the most minor of changes such as changing the colour of their front door.
But look back and see when William Lyttle was moved out. 2009. Just after the conservation was created. By then the property was already an eye sore. Maybe the planning was denied because the area was created when Lyttle’s house was already destroyed, so maybe it has to be kept in a destroyed state. There is one thing a civil servant has to do at all costs – follow procedure to the letter.
So though the conservation area was granted to increase the value of the properties in the area the conservation officer is also causing the value of neighbouring properties to fall. So they have all the downsides of the conservation area but none of the benefits.
Do you think the left hand in the council doesn’t care what the right hand is doing?
Update: Now up for sale at £500K.