"Straw Man" Battles Zoning Law with Wall of Hay

British Farmer Bob Fidler, right, with the four-bedroom house he concealed on his property for four years to skirt a zoning law.
They say an Englishman's home is his castle, but a recent court case is shaking that time-honored concept to its foundation. CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports on England's "straw man."

How do you hide a four-bedroom house in the middle of a field?

Simple - with a wall of hay. But why bother?

"I had to, because I was driven to it," says Bob Fidler.

Fidler says he's just a farmer who wanted a family home.

"Every other farm in England has a house on it," he said. "Why can't I have a house on my farm?"

In fact, he already did have a small house on the property but he was after something grander.

The trouble is Fidler's area is a protected green belt. Planning permission is hard to get. And in his case, says Fidler, bungling bureaucrats made it impossible....

So he set out to bend the rules But those rules in the U.K. say that if you go ahead and build a house without permission the planning authorities have four years to react and tell you to take it down.

If they don't, you get to keep it.

So Bob Fidler and his wife Linda literally built their house in a haystack - and crossed their fingers that the local council wouldn't catch on.

It worked.

"Well, he's a hay and straw merchant," said Reigate and Banstead Borough Councilor Mike Miller. "Why would we suspect that some unlawful activity is going on inside a haystack?"

But, four years later, what should have been Fidler's victory moment was his undoing.

A judge ruled that "building operations were not completed until the removal of the straw bales."

In other words, the four years didn't end when the straw came down - they just began.

There's a lot of sympathy out there for a little guy who tries to take on city hall, and Fidler has a Facebook support group to prove it.

But the local council says he's been gaming the system - and the house has to go.

Fidler's not going down easily. "I suspect ultimately there's going to be a definite confrontation on the site," he said.

But the bottom line is that he has 12 months to take down his house - or the council will do it for him.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."