Carmarthenshire couple fear losing everything after suffering a ‘nightmare’ 17-year battle with the council
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
A couple who moved to the countryside to retire and open a cattery claim they could lose their cottage and smallholding following a 17-year dispute with Carmarthenshire Council.
Patricia Breckman and her husband Eddie Roberts claim the council did not adequately investigate planning-related issues relating to a neighbouring farm.
This, according to the couple, devalued their home, led to them spending thousands of pounds on legal costs, affected their health, and left them unable to open the cattery.
They owe just over £80,000 on their property – and their mortgage company is now taking legal action to recover the money.
Mrs Breckman said she and her husband would have steered clear of the smallholding had they known then what they know now.
“I would never have bought the place – not in a million years,” said Mrs Breckman, 77. “I didn’t dream any of this would happen.”
The issues which arose led to many visits from council planning officers, Dyfed-Powys Police officers, plus a planning inquiry, investigations by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, an Assembly petition, and a compensation claim.
Mrs Breckman was not successful in her compensation claim against the council and and wanted it to carry out an independent review of the whole saga, which she felt could lead to an ex-gratia payment from the authority. An ex-gratia payment is a payment of money when there is no obligation or liability to pay it.
Mrs Breckman received support in this bid from her MS, Adam Price, who had previously asked the council to consider making an ex-gratia payment to ensure the couple did not lose their home, and her ward councillor Cefin Campbell.
The council did not carry out an independent review, but its ruling executive board has re-considered the case and decided that it could not justify an ex-gratia payment.
The council said it had implemented all the recommendations from investigating bodies over the years, apologised to Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts, and that it could not justify a payment – adding that it would have to come from the council’s own funds as it fell outside of the insurance cover.
Mrs Breckman is now considering suing the council, and an online crowdfunding webpage has been set up towards legal costs.
The couple moved into the £230,000 smallholding in Maesybont, near Cross Hands, in December 2003. Mrs Breckman was there full-time to start with while her husband continued his self-employed work in Sussex to bolster their finances.
They hoped to add to the cattery, which they secured planning consent for, by converting a small barn on the smallholding in the longer term.
Mr Roberts, 85, said: “We are both animal lovers and we loved the idea of having a cattery. The barn was going to be holiday lets.”
Mrs Breckman said she recalled spending her 60th birthday at her cottage, near Maesybont, with plenty to look forward to in a quiet spot of rural Carmarthenshire.
But she claimed that this changed due to planning-related and other issues.
Mrs Breckman said the situation at the smallholding deteriorated, prompting Mr Roberts to cut short his work in Sussex and move in full-time.
Mrs Breckman said: “I thought to myself, ‘What have I moved into?’ We were trapped in a property we could not sell.”
“It was a extremely stressful and worrying time,” said Mr Roberts. “Our finances needed supporting, and I was self-employed and working long hours.”
Some of what occurred was contained in the findings of a planning inquiry in 2010, and then a lengthy report by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales in 2012.
The planning inquiry resulted in a Welsh Government-appointed inspector telling the neighbouring farm owner that they must stop using the land to store lorries, skips, excavation equipment and engine parts, and also reinstate an area of hardstanding to its former condition.
Two year later, the then ombudsman Peter Tyndall considered a complaint made by Mrs Breckman against the council.
The complaint had five grounds alleging, among other things, that her complaints had not been taken seriously, that the council had failed to take enforcement action in respect of alleged haulage activities, that she and her husband had unreasonably been made the subject of the council’s persistent complainants policy.
Mr Tyndall partially upheld the complaints and made a series of recommendations to the council, including that it must pay the couple £2,500 as redress “for the injustice identified in this report and in respect of their time and trouble” in pursuing their complaints.
He also required the council to make a “fulsome apology” to Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts.
The 188-report shed light on a complex and fraught situation. The report details some actions taken by the council over the years, including the serving of noise abatement notices to the neighbouring farm, whose owner no longer lives there.
Council officers and some councillors felt they were being overloaded with correspondence from Mrs Breckman – and she and her husband were made the subject of the persistent complainants policy in 2007.
But the couple didn’t find out about this until the following year. Emails from Mrs Breckman to officers and also, it emerged, councillors were blocked.
In his report, ombudsman Mr Tyndall said there was a history of complaints about the neighbouring farm before Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts moved to their new home, and that while the council could not get involved in neighbour disputes, there were planning issues involved.
Mr Tyndall said he recognised that correspondence from Mrs Breckman had become difficult to manage, but that there was evidence to indicate that officers lost patience with her, giving the appearance that their objectivity may have been impaired. The ombudsman said this failure amounted to maladministration.
Mr Tyndall also said the process by which one of the sheds had been allowed at the neighbouring farm was flawed. He said the council had turned down planning permission for the shed and then allowed “essentially allowed the same building” two years later under permitted development, which grants consent for certain types of development without the need for an application.
But he added that the shed might have been approved if a planning application had been submitted, or an appeal.
Mr Tyndall also said aspects of the council’s application of the persistent complainants policy, between 2007 and 2011, amounted to maladministration, as did the council’s consideration of complaints Mrs Breckman made during that four-year period.
Mr Tyndall did not uphold a complaint that the council had accused Mrs Breckman of making malicious complaints and pursuing a vendetta, but he did uphold a complaint that the authority said she had falsified DVD evidence, which the ombudsman felt was unjustified.
The ombudsman also said the impact of the “largely unregulated haulage-related uses” at the neighbouring farm were likely to have been limited on Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts.
Four years later, in 2016, Mrs Breckman made a compensation claim against the council which was turned down.
Further planning and planning enforcement complaints by Mrs Breckman were then taken up in 2017 by the ombudsman of the time, Nick Bennett. He did not uphold them, but did invite the council to consider amending its procedure on one matter.
Then, in 2018, MS Mr Price met the leader of Carmarthenshire Council, Emlyn Dole, to discuss the situation. This was followed by an exchange of letters, copies of which have been seen by the Local Democracy Reporter Service.
Cllr Dole said in a letter that he did not consider it necessary or proportionate to establish an independent inquiry because, among others reasons, the council had implemented all of the recommendations arising from the 2012 Ombudsman report, and that its insurers had concluded that no liability lay against the authority.
But he said a barrister would be asked for a view on the position taken by the council, and that he was sorry to hear that Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts may be at risk of losing their home.
Another letter from Cllr Dole said the council would seek an independent legal opinion and undertake a “health check” on the matter, but a further letter by the leader said the situation had changed because advice had been received that the authority would lose its insurance cover if the review took place.
Mrs Breckman said she contacted the council’s insurers, Zurich Insurance Group, which told her the cover would only be compromised in respect of her claim if a legal review was to be initiated. Zurich also told her there was no evidence that it had told anyone at the council that it would not allow the authority to grant an ex-gratia payment.
On May 26 this year, the council’s executive board met in private to consider Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts’s case.
Mrs Breckman had been invited two days earlier to speak for 20 minutes at the meeting while accompanied by a friend or family member, but not a politician or council officer.
She turned it down, saying it was short notice, she was not well, and that she would have preferred to have support from political representatives. She’d also wanted prior sight of the report being presented to the executive board so that she could respond.
The May 26 meeting went ahead without her, and Cllr Dole wrote to her two days later to say the matter was discussed for quite some time, and that the executive board regretted that she had not felt able to attend.
The letter said five separate complaints had been considered by the Ombudsman over the years, with only one – the 2012 report – partially finding maladministration.
Cllr Dole reiterated that the recommendations from the 2012 report had been implemented, and also cited the outcome of the compensation claim in 2016. The letter said the council could not justify an ex-gratia payment.
“Our position therefore is that all avenues have now been exhausted,” it said. “You are free to bring legal proceedings against the authority, and we will leave it to our insurers to defend those proceedings.”
Cllr Dole said the council was sorry to hear about the couple’s mortgage arrears and hoped this was something they could resolve.
Asked by the Local Democracy Reporter Service why the council didn’t go ahead with an independent review if it was confident the actions it had taken, such as the £2,500 payment and apology from 2012, were satisfactory and would not put it at risk of having to consider an ex-gratia payment, a council spokeswoman replied: “We have written to Mrs Breckman to outline our final position on the matter.”
Mrs Breckman said she felt it was “absolutely outrageous” that she hadn’t been allowed to have a political representative accompany her to a rescheduled executive board meeting.
She said she didn’t recognise there were five maladministration complaints – the number cited in the letter.
She said she had considered taking out a loan on her property – known as equity release – to pay the mortgage arrears but had been advised this was only possible on her cottage, not the whole smallholding.
Mrs Breckman said she felt her case had been proven repeatedly over the years.
“I feel so beaten, chewed up and spat out,” she said.
Speaking before the May executive board meeting, a spokesman for Mr Price said the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MS had corresponded at length with Mrs Breckman over several years and attempted to support and advise her to the best of his ability.
“He has previously asked Carmarthenshire Council to consider an ex-gratia payment to Mrs Breckman to enable her to keep her home,” said the spokesman.
“Over the Christmas period and at the request of the council leader, Adam Price’s office sent terms of reference of what a review of Mrs Breckman’s case would look like, in order to secure a fair outcome for all.
“Last week, Adam Price further wrote to the council leader urging him to deal with this matter with the utmost urgency by putting Mrs Breckman’s case before the executive board at the earliest possible opportunity.
“No-one should have to face the anxiety of losing their home and Mr Price and his office will continue to do everything within their power to prevent Mrs Breckman’s situation from coming to that.”
Mrs Breckman said she didn’t blame her conveyancing solicitors for any of what happened, and added that the mortgage company had been very patient.
The couple’s ward councillor, Cefin Campbell, said he was disappointed by the outcome of the executive board meeting.
Cllr Campbell said he believed the review had been “promised by the council more than two years ago”. He said that as as recently as six months ago he and Mr Price were asked to put forward terms of reference for the review, which they did.
Cllr Campbell said: “In my opinion, an independent review would have allowed an investigation into the many allegations made by Mrs Breckman, and for the authority, if it feels that its conduct has been beyond reproach, to provide evidence to support that view.
“I believe this would have brought closure to a long running dispute that has gone on for over 18 years, which has had a hugely damaging effect on Mrs Breckman’s health and finances.”
Since the executive board met in May, Mrs Breckman has obtained the agenda for the meeting under the Freedom of Information Act.
It consists of a number of reports relating to the saga and sets out the potential consequences of awarding an ex-gratia payment. These include Audit Wales scrutinising any payment decision, and concerns over the potential for a precedent to be set.
Mrs Breckman said she felt she had endured a long nightmare, which she would never get over.
She said: “It has been the most horrendous experience of my life.”