MY VERANDA

Feb. 27, 2013

MY VERANDA

 

Last day of January.

Great!

I spent the day working on my lecture on folklore and literature for the Cumann Merriman. I have been working on the topic since 1974 – so, forty years – but it still takes plenty of time to prepare even a simple talk.

The day started, however, with an event which has absolutely nothing to do with folklore and literature, but with neighbours, planners, and other such suburban matters.

At ten a.m. a landscape gardener,Steve, arrived, and removed the railings from my veranda, neatly and efficiently as is his wont.  He did this at my behest. I asked him to do it because I was requested to do so by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Planning Officer. Now, instead of a veranda, I have a deck that looks a bit like a stage erected at  a St Patrick’s Day Parade for the Irish dancers and the local county councillors. Or like a mouth without any teeth.  It looks odd.

This is the story of my veranda.

In September 2011, a year and a half ago, my husband and I decided we’d better to something about our front garden.  It’s one of those square patches of grass you get in the suburbs. There’s a hedge in front and the house behind, and in between a line of roses along the side which have long lost the will to live, and a battered driveway.   I looked at the garden and wondered what could be done with it.  And thought, what I have always wanted is a veranda. The kind you see on houses in American movies, and on most houses I see when I visit Sweden. A plain wooden veranda that would give the flat  1960s front of the house a bit of a lift, and a veranda that we could sit on, on fine days.

 

Our house has a sea view. A proper one. Over our hedge is the road, then a narrow field (not a very nice one, abandoned long ago by its owners and by everyone else).  Then an old stone wall and then the sea. This doesn’t mean we live in a very posh neighbourhood. On the contrary, according to some folks in nearby places, Shankill, where I live, is just about the worst place in the entire world. The problem is, it seems, that some poor people live in it, on a county  council estate. Instead of  being safely out of sight in a ghetto in the west of Dublin, they're allowed to reside in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, on the coast! So dreadful, my dear! Pass the smelling salts!

  Shankill is actually quite nice, perfectly safe, very friendly, and beautiful. And - thanks to allowing at least some people who did not go to Blackrock College into its roads and crescents - it is an ordinary place, giving the lie to the belief that houses by the sea are always wildly expensive and exclusive.  Here  it’s just the ordinary suburbs and then the sea.

But it makes sense to have a balcony, or a veranda, or something like that, in the front of the house.  So you can sit there and look at the sea, at the seagulls, at the hawk who flies by occasionally, at the boats and the ships, at the dolphins and seals. Nobody on our road ever sits in the front of their house. Everyone has a  patch of grass, most very neat and tidy with various flowers and things. But, as in most Irish houses, these gardens are just moats, between the road and the house. If you want to sit out, you sit in the back garden. This is also a very strong tradition in suburbia, in Ireland and of course in other countries. It’s very acceptable to sit on the footpath in front of a cafe or pub on Nassau Street or Dun Laoghaire, but in our own quiet front gardens on suburban roads, we feel exposed. Sitting in the front garden is a big taboo.

I telephoned the Planning Department in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, our county council, and asked if I should apply for planning permission to build a deck in front of the house. I expected I would need such permission.  But to my  surprise the woman I spoke to, having gone to check – as civil servants often do, when you’re on the phone – said, no. Decks, as well as other landscaping features, were exempt. She directed me to an ‘FAQ’ on the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown  website, and read the clause aloud.  This is the clause:

Can I build a pond, path, decking or landscaping works without permission?

Yes.  Provided that the ground level not be altered by more than 1 metre above or below the level of adjoining ground.

(Page 158 Class 6)

I pointed out that this deck would be to the front of the house, and she pointed out that the clause did not stipulate front or back. Which is true. I then asked if a railing would be considered as extra height, and she had no answer to that, one way or the other. However, she repeated that a deck one metre above ground level  or less was exempt and that I did not need to apply for planning permission.

I found someone who builds decks, using Tradesmen Online – a good website. He gave me a reasonable quote and built the deck. The deck was just under a metre above the level of the garden,  and level with the floor of our front room: the ground here slopes down towards the sea, of course, so the floor at the sea side of the house is raised over ground level.  I added a railing, since a deck without a railing doesn’t look nice, and hoped this wouldn’t cause planning problems.

About a week after the work was completed my next door neigbour got a letter from DLR telling her that they had received a complaint indicating that she had erected a structure in front of her house without planning permission. (‘A structure’: they always use rather cold and slightly off putting words, that make you nervous and wrongfoot you.)   Although she had put up a picket fence in front of her house a few months earlier, we guessed the complainant had got the house number wrong, and that the letter was intended for us.  Sure enough, three weeks later DLR informed us that we had erected ‘a structure’ without planning permission, and asked us to get in touch with them and  explain what we were going to do about it.  I telephoned, explained the situation, said I had been told it was an exempt development. I was treated with what I would call chilly politeness and asked to write in. 

And so began a long saga.

I wrote a number of letters. After about the fourth, DLR apologized for having given inaccurate information over the telephone. But they added that I should not have paid attention to what was said on the telephone, I should have gone in to the office in person!  At this point I  began to realise that they were quite batty. If you need to go into the office in person, why not tell you that on the telephone?  Why have a FAQ section on the website? 

Finally I managed to talk to the Planning Officer: it’s difficult to catch these people, but I had read somewhere, in a memoir I think, that if you rang at nine fifteen in the morning you had some hope of getting through. I did so and got him. He was the inspector who had viewed the ‘structure’ and decided it was unlawful. He said the clause quoted on the FAQs (which is a quote from general planning law in Ireland) was one he didn’t agree with and didn’t interpret as I had (my interpretation being that exempt means exempt. His seemed to be that sometimes exempt does not mean exempt.)  I had quite a long conversation with him, during which he told me even if I applied for planning permission I wouldn’t get it, because then people all over Dublin would try to erect verandas in their front gardens. (I think it is unusual to be told before you apply for permission that you won’t get it?)  I pointed out that we lived by the sea, that there were no houses facing us, so we weren’t in the usual situation. But he was adamant. I mentioned  that the veranda had cost a lot of money and asked if, since DLR had given me the wrong information, if they would foot the bill for that and the additional cost of taking it down.  That it had cost money seemed to take him by surprise. Maybe he thought I’d erected it myself, from a DIY kit from IKEA or Woodies?  (But even they cost money.)  He then advised me to appeal his decision to An Bord Pleanala, saying it would take them eighteen weeks to respond and I’d get the summer out of the balcony.  He was kind, in the end, and as it turned out this was good advice.

            It costs about 250 Euro or so to make an appeal to An Bord Pleanala. However, I wrote a letter, supplied the complicated documentation  and the cheque and waited.

            Months passed.

            The summer passed.

            The eighteen weeks passed.

            In the nineteenth week I got a letter saying they hadn’t processed my appeal as yet, and apologizing.

            Quite all right! No rush.

            Months passed.

            Another apologetic letter arrived.

            Finally, on Christmas Eve, I got the letter,mixed in with the last of the Christmas cards.  It stated that the deck was exempt, but the railing and and balustrade were not.

            A couple of weeks after Christmas, I received a letter from DLR, repeating the information, and asking me to apprise them of what I planned to do to regularise the situation. To which I replied that I would remove the railings before the end of February.

            But in fact I regularized the situation today.  The railings have been removed. I still have a deck, minus a railing.  Although the landscaper did a neat job, he can’t work miracles. My structure doesn’t look like a veranda  on an American house or a Swedish house.  It looks a bit stupid. A bit ugly, like a mouth without teeth.  But we will get used to it. I’ll put flowerpots on it, to take the bare look off it.

 And we can sit on it, on fine days, and look at the sea, the island, Killiney Head, the seagulls, the hawks, the dolphins, the seals, the ships, the sailing boats. All that other  life that goes on on  the Irish Sea.

            And I – and the woman who answered the phone, that afternoon in September 2011 – have been vindicated. Thank you, Bord Pleanála, for sticking to the regulations you have made yourself. Thumbs down, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, for muddling  everything up and not believing their own regulations. And you, kind neighbour, who started all this trouble,  thanks for nothing.

           

 

 

MY VERANDA

 

Last day of January.

Great!

I spent the day working on my lecture on folklore and literature for the Cumann Merriman. I have been working on the topic since 1974 – so, forty years – but it still takes plenty of time to prepare even a simple talk.

The day started, however, with an event which has absolutely nothing to do with folklore and literature, but with neighbours, planners, and other such suburban matters.

At ten a.m. a landscape gardener,Steve, arrived, and removed the railings from my veranda, neatly and efficiently as is his wont.  He did this at my behest. I asked him to do it because I was requested to do so by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Planning Officer. Now, instead of a veranda, I have a deck that looks a bit like a stage erected at  a St Patrick’s Day Parade for the Irish dancers and the local county councillors. Or like a mouth without any teeth.  It looks odd.

This is the story of my veranda.

In September 2011, a year and a half ago, my husband and I decided we’d better to something about our front garden.  It’s one of those square patches of grass you get in the suburbs. There’s a hedge in front and the house behind, and in between a line of roses along the side which have long lost the will to live, and a battered driveway.   I looked at the garden and wondered what could be done with it.  And thought, what I have always wanted is a veranda. The kind you see on houses in American movies, and on most houses I see when I visit Sweden. A plain wooden veranda that would give the flat  1960s front of the house a bit of a lift, and a veranda that we could sit on, on fine days.

 

Our house has a sea view. A proper one. Over our hedge is the road, then a narrow field (not a very nice one, abandoned long ago by its owners and by everyone else).  Then an old stone wall and then the sea. This doesn’t mean we live in a very posh neighbourhood. On the contrary, as my friends  in  the next town lose no opportunity of pointing out, Shankill, where I live, is just about the worst place in the entire world. (This is an excellent example of what folklorists call ‘blason populaire’ – the tradition of insulting people in the next parish. A bit like Kerry jokes, or – on a larger scale – Irish jokes.)   Anyway, Shankill is actually quite nice, and safe, and friendly, and beautiful, but some poor people live here, in the county council estate. You’re not supposed to have council estates in South County Dublin, according to popular opinion: they should be ghettoised somewhere far away in the west of the county.   Anyway, all this means that Shankill is  an ordinary place, giving the lie to the belief that houses by the sea are always wildly expensive and exclusive.  Here  it’s jus the ordinary suburbs and then the sea.

But it makes sense to have a balcony, or a veranda, or something like that, in the front of the house.  So you can sit there and look at the sea, at the seagulls, at the hawk who flies by occasionally, at the boats and the ships, at the dolphins and seals. Nobody on our road ever sits in the front of their house. Everyone has a  patch of grass, most very neat and tidy with various flowers and things. But, as in most Irish houses, these gardens are just moats, between the road and the house. If you want to sit out, you sit in the back garden. This is also a very strong tradition in suburbia, in Ireland and of course in other countries. It’s very acceptable to sit on the footpath in front of a cafe or pub on Nassau Street or Dun Laoghaire, but in our own quiet front gardens on suburban roads, we feel exposed. Sitting in the front garden is a big taboo.

I telephoned the Planning Department in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, our county council, and asked if I should apply for planning permission to build a deck in front of the house. I expected I would need such permission.  But to my  surprise the woman I spoke to, having gone to check – as civil servants often do, when you’re on the phone – said, no. Decks, as well as other landscaping features, were exempt. She directed me to an ‘FAQ’ on the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown  website, and read the clause aloud.  This is the clause:

Can I build a pond, path, decking or landscaping works without permission?

Yes.  Provided that the ground level not be altered by more than 1 metre above or below the level of adjoining ground.

(Page 158 Class 6)

I pointed out that this deck would be to the front of the house, and she pointed out that the clause did not stipulate front or back. Which is true. I then asked if a railing would be considered as extra height, and she had no answer to that, one way or the other. However, she repeated that a deck one metre above ground level  or less was exempt and that I did not need to apply for planning permission.

I found someone who builds decks, using Tradesmen Online – a good website. He gave me a reasonable quote and built the deck. The deck was just under a metre above the level of the garden,  and level with the floor of our front room: the ground here slopes down towards the sea, of course, so the floor at the sea side of the house is raised over ground level.  I added a railing, since a deck without a railing doesn’t look nice, and hoped this wouldn’t cause planning problems.

About a week after the work was completed my next door neigbour got a letter from DLR telling her that they had received a complaint indicating that she had erected a structure in front of her house without planning permission. (‘A structure’: they always use rather cold and slightly off putting words, that make you nervous and wrongfoot you.)   Although she had put up a picket fence in front of her house a few months earlier, we guessed the complainant had got the house number wrong, and that the letter was intended for us.  Sure enough, three weeks later DLR informed us that we had erected ‘a structure’ without planning permission, and asked us to get in touch with them and  explain what we were going to do about it.  I telephoned, explained the situation, said I had been told it was an exempt development. I was treated with what I would call chilly politeness and asked to write in. 

And so began a long saga.

I wrote a number of letters. After about the fourth, DLR apologized for having given inaccurate information over the telephone. But they added that I should not have paid attention to what was said on the telephone, I should have gone in to the office in person!  At this point I  began to realise that they were quite batty. If you need to go into the office in person, why not tell you that on the telephone?  Why have a FAQ section on the website? 

Finally I managed to talk to the Planning Officer: it’s difficult to catch these people, but I had read somewhere, in a memoir I think, that if you rang at nine fifteen in the morning you had some hope of getting through. I did so and got him. He was the inspector who had viewed the ‘structure’ and decided it was unlawful. He said the clause quoted on the FAQs (which is a quote from general planning law in Ireland) was one he didn’t agree with and didn’t interpret as I had (my interpretation being that exempt means exempt. His seemed to be that sometimes exempt does not mean exempt.)  I had quite a long conversation with him, during which he told me even if I applied for planning permission I wouldn’t get it, because then people all over Dublin would try to erect verandas in their front gardens. (I think it is unusual to be told before you apply for permission that you won’t get it?)  I pointed out that we lived by the sea, that there were no houses facing us, so we weren’t in the usual situation. But he was adamant. I mentioned  that the veranda had cost a lot of money and asked if, since DLR had given me the wrong information, if they would foot the bill for that and the additional cost of taking it down.  That it had cost money seemed to take him by surprise. Maybe he thought I’d erected it myself, from a DIY kit from IKEA or Woodies?  (But even they cost money.)  He then advised me to appeal his decision to An Bord Pleanala, saying it would take them eighteen weeks to respond and I’d get the summer out of the balcony.  He was kind, in the end, and as it turned out this was good advice.

            It costs about 250 Euro or so to make an appeal to An Bord Pleanala. However, I wrote a letter, supplied the complicated documentation  and the cheque and waited.

            Months passed.

            The summer passed.

            The eighteen weeks passed.

            In the nineteenth week I got a letter saying they hadn’t processed my appeal as yet, and apologizing.

            Quite all right! No rush.

            Months passed.

            Another apologetic letter arrived.

            Finally, on Christmas Eve, I got the letter,mixed in with the last of the Christmas cards.  It stated that the deck was exempt, but the railing and and balustrade were not.

            A couple of weeks after Christmas, I received a letter from DLR, repeating the information, and asking me to apprise them of what I planned to do to regularise the situation. To which I replied that I would remove the railings before the end of February.

            But in fact I regularized the situation today.  The railings have been removed. I still have a deck, minus a railing.  Although the landscaper did a neat job, he can’t work miracles. My structure doesn’t look like a veranda  on an American house or a Swedish house.  It looks a bit stupid. A bit ugly, like a mouth without teeth.  But we will get used to it. I’ll put flowerpots on it, to take the bare look off it.

 And we can sit on it, on fine days, and look at the sea, the island, Killiney Head, the seagulls, the hawks, the dolphins, the seals, the ships, the sailing boats. All that other  life that goes on on  the Irish Sea.

            And I – and the woman who answered the phone, that afternoon in September 2011 – have been vindicated. Thank you, Bord Pleanála, for sticking to the regulations you have made yourself. Thumbs down, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, for muddling  everything up and not believing their own regulations. And you, kind neighbour, who started all this trouble,  thanks for nothing.