The forest of brushwood and crumpled canes on either side of the railway track behind Robin Waistell’s bungalow in Maesteg, Bridgend, doesn’t appear particularly menacing. But don’t be fooled. It is winter, and the beast is dormant.
Underground, a 10ft-deep root system is springing into life; in a month or so, reddish shoots will begin to appear. By June, the bright green, deceptively pretty heart-shaped foliage of Fallopia japonica, or Japanese knotweed, will be shoulder high, and it will carry on growing through the summer, at a rate of 10cm-20cm a day. It will once again clamber up past the bungalow’s bedroom windows, obliterating the view and smothering the light.
The two-bedroom home that Waistell, 70, desperately wants to sell so he can return to live in Spain has almost halved in value since the knotweed was identified behind it. The asking price has plummeted from £129,950 to just £70,000 — and even at that level, no one wants to buy.
Yet in a landmark case, Waistell, a retired builder, and his neighbour, Stephen Williams, 45, a kitchen fitter, took on Goliath and won. On February 2, after a four-day hearing at Cardiff County Court, the judge ordered Network Rail, which owns the land from which the knotweed had spread, to pay each man £4,320 to treat it and £10,000 compensation for the fall in value of their homes.
“The case will have profound implications for homeowners and landowners across the country,” says Waistell’s lawyer, Rodger Burnett, of the London firm Charles Lyndon. “The court has found that the mere presence of Japanese knotweed is capable of being an actionable nuisance even if there is no encroachment, as it interferes with your ability to sell your house at market value.
“Mr Waistell and Mr Williams have been compensated for residual impact on the value of the property after treatment, but if Network Rail fails to treat the problem, they could claim for the full drop in the value of their bungalows.”
Network Rail has stated that it is reviewing the judgment in detail, and is reported to be considering taking an appeal to the High Court. With similar outbreaks around the country, every affected household along 20,000 miles of railway line throughout England, Scotland and Wales potentially has a case, as well as many more plagued by the plant growing on private and council-owned land.
Japanese knotweed was introduced to Europe in the 19th century by a German botanist, Philipp von Siebold, who found it growing on the side of volcanoes in Japan. So taken was he with his specimen that in 1850 he sent it to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and before long nurseries were selling it to English gardeners.
Little did they know. Fallopia japonica is the undisputed tyrant of the plant world, powering silently through quiet communities, racing up through gardens at a ferocious speed, pushing up tarmac, slithering under paving stones and into gaps in foundations and drains, pitting neighbour against neighbour — failure to control it can result in an Asbo and a fine of £2,500 — and wrecking dreams.
Knotweed’s reputation for world dominance is such that few mortgage lenders will offer loans where the plant is found growing within seven metres of a property. In practice, most potential buyers will drop their offer and run, so the knotweed-afflicted market finds its own level.
All knotweed plants in Britain are male, and technically sterile, yet that doesn’t affect its astonishing capacity to reproduce. A minute fragment of root is enough to clone a 7ft-wide clump in a terrifyingly short time. And every time a gardener mows it, or digs it up and throws it into the green bins the council takes away to the dump, they are unwittingly contributing to the problem.
In 1981, the Wildlife and Countryside Act made it an offence to introduce knotweed into wild spaces, but by then the plant had bolted. A survey in 1998 showed that in the Swansea area alone, it covered almost 250 acres. Experts agree that it is now everywhere. The only way to destroy it is by spraying the roots with chemicals, but this is an expensive, time-consuming process — it can take five years to successfully treat an affected area.
Bridgend council told me he didn’t consider the area to be particularly affected, “though people do phone in from time to time to complain that they can’t see the bus coming for knotweed”. Which sounds like a considerable problem to me. A walk through Maesteg with Waistell confirms that it is at the end of cul-de-sacs, behind garages and all around a pigeon loft halfway up the hillside. “The locals call it ‘peashooters’ because the stems are hollow,” he says. “It’s a fact of life. No one pays it much attention.” Until they want to sell.
“I do regret coming here, to be honest,” he adds. “But who could have predicted that a plant would blight his life?”
Waistell and his second wife, Judy, moved from Cornwall to Spain in January 2006, settling in a little town called Aspe, near Alicante. “I had a beautiful house,” he recalls wistfully. “I’d get out of bed and jump into my own pool every morning.”
One Saturday evening in October 2010, however, Judy, then 63, felt unwell, and Waistell took her to the doctor. “Within three hours of leaving home, she had been admitted to hospital, and by midnight we knew what the problem was. She had pancreatic cancer. We were told she had, at most, 10 weeks to live.”
Judy wanted to get back to England to be with their children — four sons between them — and grandchildren. “She passed away on December 28, 2010,” Waistell says. “Although I had wonderful memories of Spain, I didn’t want to go back without her.”
He sold the home they’d shared, furniture and all, for €155,000 (about £135,000), and moved to Maesteg on the advice of a friend. “He said, ‘Come to Wales, it’s so friendly.’ And it is, but I didn’t realise how much I’d miss Spain.” He paid £65,000 for the bungalow and moved in in May 2012, spending about £25,000 on landscaping the garden, replacing the kitchen and bathroom, and fitting double glazing. “But I was homesick. I realised pretty quickly that I should never have left.”
In the summer of 2013, the bungalow was valued by a local estate agent and put on the market at £129,995. Then a survey showed that knotweed had crept from the railway sidings to the back of the house and down between the stones of the foundations. Waistell was advised to drop the price to £70,000, and had an offer of £69,000 — “an insult. This is my sons’ inheritance. I can’t afford to lose more than £60,000. That’s when I made up my mind to go to town on Network Rail.”
His lawyer, Rodger Burnett, co-founded Charles Lyndon in 2015 after finding knotweed in the garden of his own home in Camberwell, southeast London, which backed onto land owned by Network Rail. His surveyor noted that there was knotweed on a nearby railway embankment. “It was winter, there was nothing to see,” Burnett recalls. “I thought, ‘It’s a weed. How bad can it be?’ By spring, my mother pointed out that I was surrounded by it.”
He fought his own case, settling out of court, and since then has spent his time building cases against the rail network, councils, landowners and developers over their failure to contain its spread along land they own. He has never lost a knotweed case — he has handled about 150 — but historically these claims have all been settled out of court for “undisclosed sums, accompanied by gagging orders”.
“Mr Waistell’s was a test case — the first they’d taken all the way to court,” he says. “And clearly they were not expecting to lose.”
For Waistell, the victory has been hard won, and it is not yet over. It took three years for the case to reach court, and even if Network Rail addresses the problem, it will be another three or four years before the knotweed behind his house is eradicated. “If Network Rail co-operates and puts in place an effective treatment programme by a competent contractor with an insurance-backed guarantee, that should be enough for a buyer to obtain a mortgage on the property,” Burnett says.
And if it doesn’t? “Then Robin Waistell will remain effectively a prisoner in his own home.”
JAPANESE KNOTWEED FACTS
£1.5bn The sum the government estimates it would cost to clear the infestationof Japanese knotweedin the UK
1850 The year Japanese knotweed arrived in Britain, labelled “plant number 34” in a box of 40 Chinese and Japanese varieties that were delivered to Kew Gardens
0.06g The amount of root needed for the plant to grow again, making it almost impossible to eradicate by digging up
Enemies In Japan, 186 bugs and about 40 fungi feed on knotweed. In the UK, it was predator-free until 2010, when thousands of Japanese insects called Aphalara itadori, which feast on the weed, were introduced in an attempt to stunt its spread
£166m The estimated amount spent each year on treating the plant in the UK. Councils are also struggling with its increasing prevalence in parks
£70m The bill for clearing the weed from 10 acres of the Olympic Park for the 2012 London Games
Tuck in As well as being a good source of vitamin C, it’s said to taste like rhubarb with a hint of lemon. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there’s so much knotweed, businesses are turning it into beer, ice pops and honey
Deadly In 2013, a West Midlands man killed his wife and himself after he was “driven mad” by the prospect of Japanese knotweed taking over their home
10 years Japanese knotweed can lie dormant underground for a decade, and it can take up to five years for poison to kill it completely
9.2% The percentage of rivers and canals in England and Wales that are infested. In Scotland, it’s 3.1%