David Eckersall almost completely razed Grade II-listed Nutter Cote Farm in Thornton-in-Craven, near Skipton, in 2016, after believing it had become 'unsafe' during work to build a new extension to the 19th-century property, causing severe damage to the adjoining cottage while his neighbours were on holiday. Both buildings were rare surviving examples of a laithe house with 18th-century origins.
Mr Eckersall was later fined £20,000 at Bradford Crown Court - but has now appealed against several decisions made by Craven Council in respect to remedial work at the site and a public inquiry by HM Planning Inspectorate is being heard this week.
Mr Eckersall and his wife Christina dispute the refusal of numerous applications to rebuild the property, an enforcement notice issued in 2018, and the rejection of a further proposal to build a canine hydroptherapy centre on the land. A more recent application to reconstruct Nutter Cote Farm was deemed to be invalid as it lacked key information, and discussions around the submission are ongoing.
Both parties have legal representation in the hearing chaired by planning inspector John Braithwaite, who told all present that he did not consider the demolition and subsequent prosecution of Mr Eckersall as being relevant to the current dispute.
He also told Craven Council's lawyer Asitha Ranatunga that he would not deal with the authority's claims that there had been 'personal attacks on council officers and accusations of malpractice' from those associated with Mr Eckersall, as these went beyond the scope of the inquiry and a planning agent involved in them was no longer working on the case.
In his opening statement, Mr Ranatunga said there was 'a long and complicated history of appeals' relating to Nutter Cote Farm which began when permission was granted in 2015, the year the Eckersalls bought the house, for a new extension to be built. Instead, the main property - described as 'an irreplaceable resource' - was knocked down because Mr Eckersall believed it had become unstable during the project.
Craven Council's case rests on the fact that their officers and an external heritage planning consultant had concerns over a perceived failure to demonstrate that the house would be rebuilt with historic authenticity, despite Mr Eckersall retaining the original building materials and offering to reuse them in the reconstruction. In addition, the application for the canine hydroptherapy centre was rejected on the grounds that it was not a sustainable or suitable development for a rural area.
The Eckersalls' lawyer, John Hunter, accepted that offences had been committed when the property was demolished, but added that the judge in the criminal case had admitted the explanation that Mr Eckersall was acting in the 'honest belief' that the building posed an imminent danger.
Mr Hunter argued that the council had 'made it clear they considered any rebuilding of Nutter Cote Farm to be unacceptable' and claimed that his requests to see copies of officers' reports had been refused.
In his opening statement, he said: "They are blinded by the history of the matter. It is a wilful blindness. They refuse to agree that the impact on a listed building is a key issue. The canine hydrotherapy application was refused for putative reasons and the council has misunderstood and misapplied its planning policies. It was to be a modest building that would have blended comfortably into the landscape."
Heritage consultant John Hinchliffe gave evidence and reiterated his concerns that there was not enough details submitted in plans for the building with regard to materials and alterations that may deviate from the traditional layout. He added that he remains supportive in principle of the farmhouse being sympathetically restored.
After the conclusion of the hearing, Mr Braithwaite is expected to take several weeks to issue a decision on whether the appeal has been upheld.