This article was originally published in Southern Farmer magazine
Regular readers of this column will by now have realised that the majority of my work revolves around rural planning. As if that didn’t produce enough problems, my intellectual capabilities are frequently challenged by boundary issues. Frequently, clients quite reasonably need to establish the correct boundary between two properties, for example when erecting a new fence, planning for farm buildings, dealing with surface water run-off or selling a parcel of land. In these situations, boundaries can very often be agreed between neighbours and the Land Registry does have excellent procedures to record agreed boundaries.
Difficulties arise not with boundary “issues” but with boundary “disputes”. Occasionally they escalate beyond all proportion. During the Battle of the Somme, over 20,000 soldiers died attempting to secure 5 yards of muddy soil: I had been involved in some disputes fought with almost as much intensity and stupidity.
If someone calls me to say that his boundary dispute should be resolved at all costs as a matter of principle, I am quick to reply that principles can be very expensive and totally disproportionate to the value of the land in question. By the time the solicitors have taken their share, and I have taken my modest fee, very often the disputed land becomes worthless. By the time boundary disputes have become personal between the antagonists, the situation has very often spiralled out of control.
Before getting involved in a dispute, it is worth just stepping back to consider the legal definition of a boundary. It is an “invisible line dividing one person’s land from another’s. It does not have thickness or width and usually, but not always, falls somewhere in or along a physical boundary feature such as a wall, fence or hedge” Most importantly, the definition goes on to add that “the exact positions of legal boundaries are almost never shown on registered title plans”.
Invariably, boundaries are drawn on a title deed plan in thick felt tip pen translating to an “invisible” boundary of quite possibly 2 or 3 metres. As mapping techniques become more accurate, the Ordnance Survey plan upon which aged title deed plans are based are revised thus rendering the original documentation at best unreliable, at worst contradictory. I recently visited a property where the only vehicular access shown on the title deed plan was not wide enough to accommodate a baby’s push chair, let alone a modern 4 x 4.
Even the physical features on the ground may not be definitive. For example, neighbouring cattle farms are often divided by a double fence. Hedges will contain a stock fence which does not necessarily run through its centre. The classic “hedge and ditch” principle may not hold true if the ditch is artificially made.
To anyone with a genuine boundary issue my advice is to work with your neighbour to resolve it before it escalates into a time consuming dispute that can only cause immense emotional and financial stress. When boundary disputes become personal, rational resolution becomes almost impossible to achieve.
To discuss a boundary dispute or any other issue with me, feel free to get in touch.