Did Enforcement Row Dating Back 30 Years Lead to Destruction of Oxon Planning Depts.

Daily Mail

Was triple arson attack revenge for losing planning dispute? Man ‘set fire to council offices, funeral parlour and cottage after row over building’

  • Three major fires tore through council offices, cottage and funeral parlour 
  • Fire destroyed half the cottage and left the council offices a charred shell
  • Part of the council roof has caved in and most of the building destroyed  
  • Source claims man started fire because planning application was rejected 
  • Car loaded with gas canisters was driven into council building before fire
  • Oxfordshire Fire Service said at its peak 27 fire crews were battling fires
  • Thames Valley Police confirmed gas canisters found at all three sites 
  • First fire was at a cottage in Roke Marsh where 80-year-old woman inside 
  • Around 30 people evacuated after stash of gas cylinders found at another house in Roke Marsh and bomb disposal teams have been called in 
  • Police confirmed 47-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of arson 

A 47-year-old named as farmer Andrew Main was being held tonight over the fires, the largest of which tore through the offices of South Oxfordshire District Council this morning.

It destroyed windows and leaving little more than buckled frames, smashed windows and a caved-in roof behind.

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Andrew Main, who lives in a farmhouse in Roke Marsh, Oxfordshire (bottom), is under arrest on suspicion of starting three fires including at a neighbour's cottage (top) after a planning row over a building (right)

Andrew Main, who lives in a farmhouse in Roke Marsh, Oxfordshire (bottom), is under arrest on suspicion of starting three fires including at a neighbour’s cottage (top) after a planning row over a building (right)

Context: A wider aerial view of the scene of today's drama in the village of Roke Marsh, Oxfordshire

Context: A wider aerial view of the scene of today’s drama in the village of Roke Marsh, Oxfordshire

Fire crews also spent hours tackling a fire at the  offices of South Oxfordshire District Council - one of three in the county started within minutes of each other in suspected arson attacks involving gas canisters

Fire crews also spent hours tackling a fire at the offices of South Oxfordshire District Council – one of three in the county started within minutes of each other in suspected arson attacks involving gas canisters

The fire at the council offices was believed to be part of a triple arson attack, motivated by anger over a long running planning dispute.

Minutes earlier a thatched cottage in Roke Marsh was engulfed by flames while an 80-year-old woman was inside, along with a farm building next door, and a funeral parlour next to the council offices ignited after a gas canister was thrown into the doorway.

The arsonist was believed to have ignited a fire on the first floor of the local authority’s planning department, leaving it ravaged beyond repair.

Gas canisters were found at each site and 30 residents had to be evacuated after police discovered a stash of canisters in a house in Roke Marsh and bomb disposal teams were called in.

The council offices were left blackened, bucked and destroyed after fire tore through the building today 

The council offices were left blackened, bucked and destroyed after fire tore through the building today

A bomb disposal expert has been seen examining the car inside the charred council offices this morning 

A bomb disposal expert has been seen examining the car inside the charred council offices this morning

Police arrested a 47-year-old man on suspicion of arson in connection with all three fires. He is currently in custody and it was later confirmed his name is Andrew Main.

The triple fire, which is believed to have caused damage running into millions, is understood to have been the result of a grudge attack because of a planning dispute.

The building, believe to be on land at Roke Marsh Farm, was understood to have been built without planning permission and used as a storage site ever since. Neighbours said the dispute went back 30 years.

A source involved in the investigation said: ‘As far as we understand he was refused planning permission in relation to an application, perhaps to extend his own home, and as a result decided to go on a fire raising rampage which has resulted in the council offices being destroyed.

‘We believe he started a fire with some accelerant in the doorway of a building alongside the council offices which serves as a funeral parlour, but it looks likely that he mistook the building for the local authorities’ offices.

‘We think he then moved on to the civic HQ which is next door in Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford, near Wallingford.’

The man is thought to have driven into the council approach road before mounting a pavement and reversing his car to smash through the front doors.

An aerial view of the South Oxfordshire District Council offices shows part of the roof caving in after the fire 

An aerial view of the South Oxfordshire District Council offices shows part of the roof caving in after the fire

The car is believed to have been packed with gas canisters, and left a trail of destruction through the offices but did not start the blaze. A separate fire is thought to have been started which then engulfed the car and the foyer of the council headquarters.

At least half of the thatched cottage at Quakers Corner in Roke Marsh – the site of the first fire – was burned down in the blaze. It is occupied by Jean Gladstone, who escaped the fire unharmed.

Liam Tiller, 68, said: ‘The building was put up without planning permission years ago and nothing has been done about it.

‘The dispute goes back over 30 years. I have heard a lot of people say there was some grievance over the planning authority but that must have been over something more recent because as far as I know the district council have left it too long to do something about that house.

‘It looked like a house but it hadn’t been finished.’

Mr Tiller and his wife Kate said Ms Gladstone had lived in the thatched cottage, near to the building, for ‘many years.’

The dispute goes back over 30 years. I have heard a lot of people say there was some grievance over the planning authority
Neighbour Liam Tiller, 68

‘Half her cottage is very badly damaged,’ said Mr Tiller. ‘I don’t know if they had any grievances but nothing would justify this. Someone could have been killed.’

One neighbour, who asked to remain anonymous, said: ‘The house is not a particularly habitable one, I think they have not been able to develop it.

‘They tried to sell that piece of land a few years ago and they couldn’t. When it didn’t sell I think they tried to do some planning on it but I don’t think he ever got what he wanted.

‘They have always wanted to develop on that bit of land but they have never been allowed.

‘I don’t know what she had to say about it but I don’t think they particularly saw eye-to-eye. She is a feisty old thing but a very nice lady.’

Another neighbour, Geoff Williams, 78, also said a number of planning application had been turned down for the farmland.

‘I would have thought Jean would probably object to any applications that went in because it would more or less adjoin her land,’ he said. ‘There was a house that was partially built on the farm that I don’t think had planning permission.

‘There were also some planning applications on both sides of the lane which were turned down. I have probably never spoken to the suspect. I know of him and he has his name on the gate at the entrance to his property and he breeds sheep in the fields.

‘I have always got on quite well with Jean.’

People living near to the council offices in Crowmarsh Gifford described a car being driven into the foyer of the council building, usually home to around 400 staff from South Oxfordshire District Council and Vale of White Horse District Council.

Adam Beasley said the fire was described as an explosion by his parents, who live nearby. He told Sky News: ‘My mother said it was like a bomb, then very quickly the police were on the scene, and fire engines followed soon after.

The cottage in Roke Marsh, the site of the first fire, was half destroyed by the blaze started at around 3am 

The cottage in Roke Marsh, the site of the first fire, was half destroyed by the blaze started at around 3am

Fire races through council buildings in South Oxfordshire

‘In photos you can see a car which was parked up in the foyer. It’s plainly an attack involving gas canisters, which would be like a bomb going off when it exploded.

‘I would imagine they are going to have to pull the whole building down and build it again from the floor up.’

Mr Beasley said he thought the fire at the funeral parlour was a case of ‘mistaken identity’, with someone having believed it was part of the council. But he could not understand why the house, a few miles away, had been attacked.

Ian Negus said he heard an alarm at around 3.15am before ‘popping and cracking’ a short time later.

The 34 year old said: ‘I looked out of the window and there was a massive fire right in the middle of the building.

‘I went out to have a look and it was just total devastation.

‘The wind was howling across the field and fanning the flames, which were about 60ft high. It was so intense.

‘There must have been 100 firefighters here trying to put it out.

‘I came back at about 6am and it was still going strong. The entrance area was completely gone.’

Bomb disposal teams were called to help dispose of the gas canisters found at a separate property in Roke Marsh, as well as at the council buildings, and left the scene at about 1pm today.

At a press conference, Superintendent Andy Boyd said gas canisters were found at all three sites of the fire and they were currently investigating at another building in Roke Marsh where a stash of gas canisters was found inside.

The blaze engulfed the council offices and a funeral parlour next door to the building was also set alight

The blaze engulfed the council offices and a funeral parlour next door to the building was also set alight

At its height 27 crews were battling the three major fires including at the district council offices (pictured)

At its height 27 crews were battling the three major fires including at the district council offices (pictured)

At its height 27 fire crews from Oxfordshire and Berkshire were called to battle the large blaze

At its height 27 fire crews from Oxfordshire and Berkshire were called to battle the large blaze

The three fires were started within close proximity of each other and all within 10 minutes this morning 

The three fires were started within close proximity of each other and all within 10 minutes this morning

He said: ‘All three fires are being treated as suspicious. We believe a vehicle collided with the South Oxfordshire District Council building prior to the fire.

‘All three buildings are currently being searched and all three incidents are thought to be criminal acts.’

He confirmed gas canisters were found ‘in the vicinity’ of the car, which has been seen in the wreckage of the building being examined by experts.

Supt Boyd confirmed they were also searching a property in Roke Marsh, and gas canisters had been found. Around 30 people were evacuated from nearby homes and were allowed to return at about 3pm.

One evacuee, Simon Williams, said he and his family lived next door to the affected houses.

The 56-year-old said he was woken at around 3am by the smell of smoke and crackling noises outside.

Mr Williams, a management consultant, said: ‘The next thing the dogs were barking and the neighbours were banging on our door to warn us to get out because there was a fire.

‘We quickly gathered our troops and got outside and saw flames flying across the garden fence.

‘I heard the noise of the roof coming in next door. Both fires were really raging and the firefighters were trying to save what they could.’

Mr Williams said villagers gathered together as fire crews battled to save the properties, one of which was understood to be empty.

The father of two did not identify the elderly woman who lived in the thatched home but said: ‘She is a fantastic friend and neighbour and a strong trooper. We are very pleased that she is safe and well.

‘She was here at the village hall earlier but is with the police now.’

The burnt out remains of a car, which police said collided with the building before it burst into flames, gutting the site, can be seen 

The burnt out remains of a car, which police said collided with the building before it burst into flames, gutting the site, can be seen

Plumes of smoke were still seen rising from the building this morning and took fire crews hours to control 

Plumes of smoke were still seen rising from the building this morning and took fire crews hours to control

The foyer of the building was completely destroyed and appears to show the remains of the burnt car

The foyer of the building was completely destroyed and appears to show the remains of the burnt car

Windows were blown through by the force of the fire, which is thought to have been started after a car loaded with gas canister was driven in 

Windows were blown through by the force of the fire, which is thought to have been started after a car loaded with gas canister was driven in

Mr Williams said evacuees were brought to the village hall at around 6.30am but did not know when they could return home.

‘All we know is that they are doing investigations at the scene,’ he said. ‘We’re not getting a lot of information through.

‘The Red Cross and our neighbours have been unbelievable in bringing in not just food and drink and bacon sandwiches but thing like board games for people to play.’

The fires were started within quick succession of each other at the three separate sites.

Firefighters received a call about a fire at a cottage in Roke Marsh at 3.11am and 10 crews were sent to the scene. Then nine minutes later four crews were sent to battle a blaze at a funeral parlour in Marsh Lane.

Just seconds later a call was received reporting a fire at South Oxfordshire District Council’s offices at Crowmarsh Gifford, next to the funeral parlour.

Thirteen crews from Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service attended the incident.

Much of the council building was damaged by the fire, with several rooms completely burnt out by the early morning blaze

The scene of a fire at South Oxfordshire District Council…

The blaze is believed to have been started by someone with a grudge against the council over planning 

The blaze is believed to have been started by someone with a grudge against the council over planning

Witnesses reported seeing flames 60ft high coming from the council building and plumes of smoke miles away.

South Oxfordshire District Council said most of its services have been affected by the fire.

The headquarters of both council offices have been almost completely destroyed by the blaze and services are expected to be disrupted for much of the region for the next few days.

Witnesses said most of the building, which has scarcely any windows left and a roof visibly caving in, had been destroyed and they suspected it would have to be completely demolished and rebuilt.

Howard Chadwick, owner of Howard Chadwick Funeral Service which was set alight, was alerted that the building was ablaze by the building’s alarm system, and put the fire out himself.

He told Sky News: ‘I got the call from our alarm system and ran down and saw the fire. I got a fire extinguisher and manged to get the fire out before the fire fighters arrived.’

Fire crews spent more than eight hours battling the blaze at the council offices today, severely damaging it

Fire crews spent more than eight hours battling the blaze at the council offices today, severely damaging it

The roof of the council building caved in and crews were using aerial ladder platforms to assess the site 

The roof of the council building caved in and crews were using aerial ladder platforms to assess the site

The roof of the large council building in Crowmarsh Gifford was left buckled, bent and caving in on itself

The roof of the large council building in Crowmarsh Gifford was left buckled, bent and caving in on itself

Part of the roof of the building caved in and witnesses said they thought the offices would be demolished

Part of the roof of the building caved in and witnesses said they thought the offices would be demolished

Neil Cox, 73, funeral director, said he heard at noise at about 3am and then saw a car drive away quickly.

He said: ‘The offices of the funeral home were on fire, so I phoned the owner Howard, called the fire service and we tried putting it out with fire extinguishers.

‘My understanding is they broke the window in the front door, popped the cap off a gas canister and threw a match in there.’

Workers said they believe the funeral parlour, which is next door to the council, was probably set alight in error because it was presumed the building was part of the council site. They confirmed that the fire was quickly brought under control and no bodies had been damaged in the blaze.

Karl Mitchell-Sheed lives close to the council offices. He said: ‘The building has been decimated. The roof has collapsed in. I was stood next to a man this morning who said, that’s my desk burning there.’

A police spokesman confirmed there had been no reports of anyone injured.

The funeral parlour was partly damaged by the fire, after  a gas canister was thrown in through the doorway

The funeral parlour was partly damaged by the fire, after a gas canister was thrown in through the doorway

Parts of the council building were damaged by the fire, with blackened beams left behind in the wreckage

Parts of the council building were damaged by the fire, with blackened beams left behind in the wreckage

Adam Beasley said the fire was described as an explosion by his parents, who live nearby. He said: ‘Earlier on I spoke to my mate, who runs the funeral business. I could see the damage to his business, and the council offices are not looking too good either.

‘My mother said it was like a bomb, then very quickly the police were on the scene, and fire engines followed soon after.

‘In photos you can see a car which was parked up in the foyer. It’s plainly an attack involving gas canisters, which would be like a bomb going off when it exploded.

‘I would imagine they are going to have to pull the whole building down and build it again from the floor up.’

Mr Beasley said he thought the fire at the funeral parlour was a case of ‘mistaken identity’, with someone having believed it was part of the council. But he could not understand why the house, a few miles away, had been attacked.

Dozens of crews remained at the South Oxfordshire District Council offices , which was devastated by the fire

Dozens of crews remained at the South Oxfordshire District Council offices , which was devastated by the fire

Firefighters from Oxfordshire and Berkshire were called to the fires, which started at around 3am today

Firefighters from Oxfordshire and Berkshire were called to the fires, which started at around 3am today

Crews surveyed the damage caused by the 3am fire after a car is thoughtd to have been driven into it

Crews surveyed the damage caused by the 3am fire after a car is thoughtd to have been driven into it

He added: ‘Fortunately it’s just the offices (at the funeral parlour), it’s where the customers are met and greeted, so the hearses are fine. They’ve got a couple of funerals today that are still going ahead as planned.’

The roof of the cottage, in an area where properties are worth almost £700,000, was also badly damaged.  Its 80-year-old occupant managed to escape the blaze unharmed.

In a statement Thames Valley Police said: ‘Officers were called at 3.24am to Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford where a fire was reported at South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) building and another at a nearby commercial property.

‘At 3.41am officers were called to a third fire at a property in Quakers Corner, Roke Marsh.

‘At this stage the police investigation is focussing on all three fires being linked and are believed to be suspicious.’

Windows were smashed and part of the roof of the council offices was seen to cave in as crews tried to control the smoking remains 

Firefighters were at the council offices for more than eight hours, and the fire is believed to have been the result of an arson attack

Firefighters were at the council offices for more than eight hours, and the fire is believed to have been the result of an arson attack

Firefighters are using aerial ladder platform to examine the damage done to the council offices by the major fire that ripped through it 

Firefighters are using aerial ladder platform to examine the damage done to the council offices by the major fire that ripped through it

Crews remained at the  scene hours after the fire started at around 3am this morning, and smoke from the blaze could be seen miles away

Crews remained at the scene hours after the fire started at around 3am this morning, and smoke from the blaze could be seen miles away

‘There are cordons in place at all three locations and residents and motorists are asked to avoid these areas.

‘Nobody has been reported injured at this time as a result of these fires, however following these fires the structures of the buildings affected are being examined for safety.

‘A 47-year-old local man has been arrested on suspicion of arson and is currently in custody.’

John Cotton, leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, said that emergency services such as housing and homelessness will still be available today but that a number of services were run from the building – including housing, planning and leisure.

He told Sky News: ‘It looks like the building are fully destroyed.

‘In the coming couple of days the rest of our services will come back as our contingency plans kick in. It looks very much like an arson attack.’

Neighbouring councils have been offering support and staff are believed to be working from home where possible.

 

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