Hollingworth Lake bungalow nightmare

Date published: 13 March 2019

The prospect of one day buying a dream retirement home, the perfect property in the ideal location, would feature high up on many a wishlist, but for one couple, their hopes of establishing their version of this reality has turned into a 20-year nightmare.

Plagued by disputes, not only has the site become something of an infamous local landmark, an account of the lengthy saga has been voiced in Parliament.

Now it could all be brought to a frustrating end for Dr Stephen Watkins and his wife Elizabeth as the council has issued a compulsory purchase order (CPO) on their dream home, meaning it could be taken out of their hands.

The pair had their heart set on a new-build bungalow on the shores of Hollingworth Lake – complete with its own library for the hundreds of books Dr Watkins had collected over the years.

Work began on the property in 1997 and it should have been the first step towards an idyllic retirement living at the Rochdale beauty spot – a reward for having ‘worked like dogs’ their whole lives.

However, the couple have never moved into the property, which remains unfinished.

Bungalow overlooking Hollingworth Lake

The two decades have been eaten up with disputes – first with the firm that built the property, and then a protracted battle with the National House Building Council (NHBC) with whom they had taken out a ‘Buildmark’ warranty and insurance policy.

Along the way they have also seen Rochdale Council bid to take control of the bungalow – first through an empty homes management order, and more recently, via the CPO, issued in December.

The lengthy saga has even been brought up in Parliament by Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd.

Despite the claim – and valuation – finally being settled to their satisfaction, the pair say they will never be able to face moving into the property, saying it is now tarnished with too many painful memories.

When work on the bungalow began in 1997, Elizabeth – who worked as a nurse and health visitor – retired to oversee the project, dropping in regularly to check on the progress.

Sitting in the front room of her home in Oldham, she reflects on the pair’s vision for ‘a library by the lake’ back in the late 1990s.

“I really retired to give us a better quality of life, because we both worked all days and evenings. A lot of my work was dealing with child protection. It was a treat, we had worked like dogs all our lives.

“We have a friend who flies aeroplanes, one who sails yachts, Stephen’s dream was to have a library overlooking a lake and it kept me going all that time, because I wanted him to have his dream, that kept me going for a long time.

“You can go and buy an aeroplane, or a boat if you want one. But I can’t buy a lake and a library and that’s what we wanted – I wanted it for Stephen.”

Bungalow overlooking Hollingworth Lake

It’s clearly still painful issue for the couple, and Elizabeth is briefly overcome with emotion as she recounts the story.

“Elizabeth gets upset when anything reminds her of the dream we had that was snatched away from us,” says Stephen.

The first problems arose around May 1998 when the couple say they started ‘noticing things they were not happy with’- at the bungalow.

They withheld the final payment in September 1998 after a clerk of works undertook a survey of the finished property and advised them not to sign off on the deal.

The Watkins say they were ‘locked out’ of the property for three years - although the exact circumstances remain a matter of dispute between them and the building firm.

When the pair eventually took possession of the bungalow in 2001 they say they discovered more problems and lodged a claim with the NHBC under the warranty – but this was rejected.

Further difficulties – this time a neighbour who took umbrage over the right-of-way to the property – held things up until 2003.

The couple say continuing attempts to come to an agreement with the builder, ultimately foundered.

They explain they were unable to carry out work on the property prior to 2008 because they needed the house as ‘evidence’ of the problems they were complaining of.

”We had put the priority at that time on settling the dispute with the builder and putting ourselves in the position to get on with the house as we never intended to leave it standing there so long,” says Stephen.

However, in late 2008 a Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) inspector whose services they had enlisted delivered his final report on the property.

It disputed the NHBC findings relating to the original claim – and advised the couple to lodge a fresh one.

The Watkins again went to the NHBC armed with new evidence from an expert source.

In their 2015 evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment the pair accuse the NHBC of’ exceeding 100-fold the eight weeks in which it says it deals with claims’.

They go on to say that it ‘stonewalls and delay as long as possible’ when dealing with claims.

However, on two occasions – in 2013 and 2014 – they were ‘very close’ to settling the claim, but a dispute over the attic room roof proved to be an insurmountable hurdle, which led to the couple taking their case to the financial ombudsman.

“We had a proper structural engineer who reported the roof was not sufficiently strong to support the attic room if the attic room was used, and the only reason the roof was performing satisfactorily was because the attic room was not in use,” says Stephen.

“We had two choices, either strengthen the attic room or don’t use the attic room – which is a huge room. You could get four bedrooms out of it. We were not planning to use it for bedrooms, but we wanted to use it as storage.”

Although by this point there was now agreement on much of the claim, the NHBC refused to come to a valuation while the Watkins intended to take the matter relating to the roof to ombudsman.

“We had to take everything to the ombudsman to settle – it was nothing or everything,” said Stephen.

It took the ombdusman about a year to reach a decision – so complex was the issue of the roof – and their provisional decision came down on the side of the NHBC.

In 2016, following further representations from the Watkins, they found largely in favour of the couple.

“The ombudsman’s decision supported us – there were a few minor things that didn’t, but nothing important,” says Stephen.

The NHBC was then instructed to nominate three experts to assess the value of the claim, from which the Watkins could choose one and in December last year, the valuation finally came back.

The Watkins will not disclose the amount they were awarded but say they are ‘very satisfied’ with the figure, which will enable them to complete work on the house.

However, their joy soon turned to tears when they became aware Rochdale Council had issued a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) against their home.

Elizabeth says the timing of the move could not have been more unkind.

“I thought it was cruel, just a week or two before Christmas.

“It’s Christmas party season, everyone says ‘what would you like for Christmas’ and I think the last thing anyone would say is a CPO.”

Stephen added: “We were absolutely devastated. No discussion, no warning, no attempt to find any of the facts.”

“It was totally unnecessary. They said we lacked the ability and the will to carry out the project. We don’t lack either. We have simply been obstructed by the dispute with the NHBC.”

The pair say they did not find out about the CPO until they were alerted to a press story about it.

Upon contacting the council they were told it would be held in reserve as a type of back-stop, but would not be used provided they could prove they were hitting certain development ‘milestones’.

The couple say they still ‘deeply resent’ the use of a CPO – even one kept back as a fallback if progress is not made on the property.

“The mere fact they are saying they need it as a backstop has an implication we have been lying,” Stephen says.

“They don’t need a backstop unless they don’t trust us, and they have no reason not to trust us.

“We have been consistent that we couldn’t do anything with the property until we had settled with NHBC and as soon as we settled, we would complete the project.”

Sat behind a rusting security fence, with newspaper yellowing in the windows and a number ’15’ written in chalk on the brickwork at the front, the bungalow is well known to those familiar with Hollingworth Lake.

Its scale and location are impressive – a big bungalow in an idyllic spot – but the house looks sad and weather-beaten.

Inside the home boasts a large kitchen lounge, library, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. a toilet and cloakroom – as well as a large attic store room which could be converted into three bedrooms.

The property has been branded an ‘eyesore’ by some due to its sad, weather-beaten appearance, but to others it’s a poignant sight, a home built to be lived in and cherished that has never been completed.

“I can hear people talk as they walk around the place and say, ‘what a shame about that property’ and say it’s the nicest property on the whole row, I think they’re right, it’s got a lot of character. It’s a very beautiful property and very beautifully laid out inside,” says Elizabeth.

She can’t hide her frustration at those who blame her and Stephen for the drawn-out saga.

“You would have to believe that this couple, 20 years ago, decided to pay for their retirement –  because they are living in a four-storey house – and have this beautiful house built, with all bespoke items made to put in it, and they refused to move into it because they were being awkward, and spinning things out – what advantage would that be?” she says.

“Why would you behave in the way the council says we have behaved? It would be ludicrous, it would not be in our interests,” adds Stephen.

“We built this house intending to move into it and we are looking ahead. It was never built as an investment property. As recently as 10 years ago we intended to move into it. I think the last few years have been particularly emotionally draining. We don’t intend to move into it now. We intend to finish it and sell it.”

The pair have spent endless hours dealing with the dispute – for Stephen often after long days at work.

The case was even raised in Parliament by Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd, who said the tribulations the couple had been put through were ‘a disgrace’.

Addressing an All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment, he said: “We must have not a nice, cosy, industry-led ombudsman, but an ombudsman process that has real teeth and the capacity to make a material difference.”

The couple admit they do feel ‘cheated’ of their dream because of the negative emotions the house now brings up, but they say the two-decades of wrangling did not completely take over their lives.

“We have managed to live our lives as well, but it has impinged on our lives over quite a long period of time,” said Stephen.

However during this time they have also enjoyed holidays to India, Africa, and Switzerland, cruised from the Cape of Good Hope to the tip of the West Indies and even walked on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

They remain remarkably philosophical despite all their tribulations.

“I’m sure we can move on from this, we will finish this project and put this behind us, certainly,” says Stephen.

“And be a lot wiser for it,“ adds Elizabeth.

An NHBC spokesman said: “We are sorry that Dr and Mrs Watkins have had to wait so long. This has proved to be a complex and protracted case, but the claim has now been resolved for both the homeowners and NHBC.”

Rochdale Council said they had been in contact with the couple since 2007 but declined to comment further.

Details of the CPO can be found on the authority’s website.

Nick Statham, Local Democracy Reporter

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