Carmarthenshire council failed harassed couple, ombudsman says

A retired couple who endured years of harassment from their neighbours were failed by a council according to a damning ombudsman's report.

Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts filmed footage of the conflict with neighbours over planning violations concerning a haulage business.

But when they submitted the videos to Carmarthenshire council and Dyfed-Powys Police, no action was taken.

The council told BBC Week In Week Out it will implement the recommendations.

Peter Tyndall, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, said the couple suffered an injustice and that Carmarthenshire council was guilty of maladministration.

He told the BBC Wales programme: "They certainly lost objectivity. They came to believe that this was a neighbour dispute."

"I think anybody seeing that evidence and looking at it objectively would realise that there was a strong case for action."

The ombudsman was responding to a complaint by Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts that Carmarthenshire's planning department failed to stop their neighbours Andrew and Karen Thomas running a haulage business without planning permission for nearly 10 years.

The couple also complained that their local authority had unfairly blacklisted them as persistent complainers and barred their emails to all councillors.

The ombudsman upheld the couple's complaints about the haulage business and found that the council had wrongly accused the couple of falsifying evidence.

Mr Tyndall said the local authority had unreasonably used its persistent complainants policy.

The ombudsman also made recommendations to the council to improve its planning enforcement system and to make a "fulsome" apology to Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts.

'It was a dream'

The couple retired to Maes y Bont in Carmarthenshire from Sussex in 2003 to what they thought was their dream home in the countryside.

But soon after unpacking their bags they discovered they had moved next to an unauthorised and noisy haulage business.

"It was a dream. The cottage was sweet, the garden was pretty, and the land was perfect," said Ms Breckman.

"We wanted to have a cattery and the cattery would have then led probably to other things and we could have taken in some rescue animals. That's what we wanted."

But after what happened subsequently, Mr Roberts said: "It's destroyed our dreams and destroyed our future and we have lost now 11 years of our retirement to just misery."

The couple's assembly member Rhodri Glyn Thomas has called for a public inquiry into planning procedures at Carmarthenshire council following the ombudsman's report.

The AM for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr said it would enable the council to "explain in public how they came to some of these conclusions".

"I think a lot of people in Carmarthenshire need that opportunity to have that open discussion in public and there is now sufficient evidence to do so," he added.

'Harassed and intimidated'

He also says Dyfed-Powys Police have serious questions to answer.

Image caption Ms Breckman and Mr Roberts moved to Carmarthenshire expecting a quiet retirement

Mrs Breckman filmed a series of confrontations which appear to show she was being harassed and intimidated by Andrew and Karen Thomas, who died in 2008.

She presented the film to Dyfed-Powys Police.

However, no action was taken against the Thomases but the police did arrest Mrs Breckman six times and warned her three times.

In the programme Rhodri Glyn Thomas is shown one confrontation captured on film and says he cannot understand how police officers could see Mrs Breckman as the aggressor in that incident.

He said that he has asked Chief Constable Jackie Roberts to look again at the case.

Dyfed-Powys Police said they would not reopen the case.

"Our previous reviews of police involvement have revealed that the actions of individual officers have been reasonable," a statement read.

'Problematic matters'

A retired government planning inspector who chaired an inquiry into the case in 2010 said he had not come across a case like it before.

Clive Cochrane, who spent 24 years as a planning inspector, said: "Neighbour disputes happen all the time… but not like this, where there has been a justified complaint ignored for years and years."

Carmarthenshire council said it has agreed to and will be implementing the ombudsman's recommendations.

It said that disputes between neighbours on planning matters are always problematic and it is impossible to satisfy both parties.

It added that they are satisfied that their planning officers acted with integrity and that they have not shown any favour or bias to either of the parties.

Week In Week Out: The Good Life Gone Bad is on BBC One Wales at 22:35 BST on Tuesday.

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