A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Unwin.
Published in August ’14
If you had to identify the hottest of Britain’s criminal hotspots, you’d probably start your search in London, Birmingham or Manchester. But I can offer another candidate – and it’s a good deal nearer home. Too close to home until recently, when Mrs G and I put our house on the market after thirty-three years in residence.
Until then I had suspected that our road – in a semi-rural location a mile from Wimborne Square – was one of the most crime-free places in Dorset let alone the UK. In a third-of-a-century I could recall only two crimes there, one involving wilful damage to car aerials, the other a burglary.
Then the picture changed. A letter from our solicitors (whom I shall call Snail & Pace in tribute to the speed of their operations) informed us that our buyers’ solicitors had made a discovery. Smart Alec & Partners (their name has also been changed to protect an innocent journalist) had done some ‘searches and investigations’ which revealed that not only was our street unadopted but was also a bridleway and footpath. No surprises there. The gravel surface was a giveaway; and many a friendly word had been exchanged with the trickle of riders and ramblers who had used the road as long as anyone could remember.
There was, however, a problem. According to Smart Alec, the bridleway and footpath were ‘unregistered’ and ‘no private rights of way have been granted over the road’. Worse than that, Section 67 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 had rendered it a criminal offence to drive along a bridleway or footpath; and that in turn meant no insurance company would provide cover for vehicular access.
The implications were huge. Apart from threatening the sale of our house, it also meant that anyone driving to or from any of the twenty houses in the road was committing a criminal offence. Following a sample census of traffic movements, I calculated that an offence was committed every five minutes on an average day.
‘Presumably,’ I wrote to the solicitors, ‘the perpetrators of this astonishing crime wave include not only the thirty or so residents who have a driving licence and their visitors but the drivers of refuse, recycling and other public service vehicles, delivery drivers and the drivers of any emergency vehicles called to the road. I wonder if my former neighbour Superintendent Peter Williams knew he was committing a criminal offence every time he went to work as Dorset’s top traffic cop.’
Talking of the cops, as a law-abiding citizen, I considered parking the car elsewhere and asking the police why they weren’t up here slapping people in handcuffs right now. First, I decided to warn my neighbours that as repeat offenders they were in serious trouble. To my surprise, they didn’t seem worried at all. On the contrary, they appeared to think this was a joke. To a man and woman, they promised to laugh all the way to the criminal court. One actually emailed Snail & Pace asking why they hadn’t warned him a few years back that he was moving to a hotbed of criminality.
I also learned that these situations are surprisingly common. A neighbour’s purchase at Lytchett Minster was held up because the deeds showed a miniscule triangle of land was owned by someone who died fifty years ago and had no traceable descendants. She had to take out insurance in case someone appeared to claim it.
Our local postie revealed that her purchase in Wimborne was delayed for months by a right of way issue which turned out to be no problem at all. She too was represented by Snail & Pace, as was the other party. ‘What was really annoying,’ she added, ‘is that instead of delivering their letters to the solicitor in the adjoining office, they were putting them in the post and charging me for it.’
Give me strength. Still, at least the money was going to your employers, Karen.
An estate agent tells me that solicitors’ zeal for the dotting of Is and crossing of Ts is a legacy of the 1988-89 property crash, when buyers of repossessed homes used ‘minor’ legal issues to force down prices even further. Solicitors and insurers had their fingers burned and common sense went to landfill.
Ironically, considering my plan to dob them in, it was my neighbours who helped to break the solicitors’ stalemate in our case. One quoted Section 67 (2) (a) of the aforementioned Act, which states that if motor vehicles were the main users of the road for five years before 2006, existing rights continue. No problem after all, then. It seemed that the only crime involved here was daylight robbery – and it wasn’t I and my neighbours who were committing it.
The brakes were off, the sale went through and we even met our buyers, who revealed another Smart Alec discovery. Apparently our house carried a covenant that was even more bizarre than criminally driving on a right of way: ‘lunatics’ were not allowed to reside there.
‘But what will I do with my children?’ the female half of our buyers wittily exclaimed. ◗