A retired engineer who spent his own cash to clean up his Washington neighbourhood has been threatened with legal action for breaching health and safety rules.
David Render, 54, rounded up a team of volunteers to restore a sculpture to its former glory after 28 years of neglect; dragged a dilapidated picnic table back to his home, renovated then replaced it, and led teams who collected mounds of rubbish and hacked back bramble bushes making a footpath unusable to local children walking to school.
He was shocked to receive an e-mail from a Sunderland City Council official accusing him of 'trespass, criminal damage and removal of property.'
The message went on to warn him that if he carried on cutting down branches that overhang roads - as he had to do while restoring the sculpture - he would be put under investigation and 'appropriate action' would be taken.
He wrote to Prince Charles and received a letter from Clarence House to say that although the Prince could not become personally involved he “recognised the strength of his feelings” and his office would forward Mr Render’s complaint to the council.
Mr Render says that in a heated meeting at the council’s HQ he was accused of “vandalism” by a council officer, although his claim is denied.
The campaigner, who lives with his girlfriend in Lambton, said he set up the group Restoring Washington to bring some pride back to the town.
“I didn’t do it for recognition, I was just trying to help improve the area where we live and make it nicer for the people who call it home,” he said.
“But the last thing I expected to receive from the council was a threat of legal action. It’s madness.
“I was told I wasn’t doing suitable risk assessments before cutting down branches near the highway. The only risk assessment necessary was making sure the road was quiet and no cars were coming at the time.
“I think the council are angry that our group is making them look bad by showing what community spirit can achieve and reversing years of their neglect.”
He discovered the rusting sculpture near the Wear Industrial Estate while on one of his regular rubbish-picking expeditions on the streets and grass verges near his home.
It was put in place by the former Washington Development Corporation and was once a gleaming multi-coloured symbol of the new town’s ambition.
Mr Render, who ran his own motor engineering business, said: “The sculpture had been forgotten completely, I only discovered it while I was picking up rubbish next to the slip-road where it stands.
“When I looked I saw a rusting frame holding the up the ‘Wear’ sign which was surrounded by globes which had rusted into holes.
“I knew it would be a long job but I thought it would be fantastic to restore it.”
He gathered a team of volunteers who hacked away the undergrowth, filled the corroded holes and repainted the sculpture in vibrant red and silver rust-proof paint.
The transformation encouraged Mr Render to continue his work in Princess Anne park.
He took a vandalised and rotting picnic table back to his home and with the help of other volunteers replaced the timber and took it back to where it once stood, making sure it was safely anchored to the ground.
He said: “I felt the picnic tables in their original state were a hazard because they weren’t fixed to the ground and the kids began pushing them over, I was worried someone would get hurt so I did something about it.
“We’ve organised teams to pick up litter, we’ve cut down overgrown thorns to free up footpaths and I think we have really made a difference to the area. It’s a shame the council doesn’t seem to agree.”
In an e-mail to Mr Render earlier this month, Mark Speed, head of Place Management at Sunderland City Council, said he had been contacted by people about David’s posts on the Washington In Decline page he set up on Facebook.
“You have been posting information on social media sites which suggest you have been deliberately and knowingly committing offences; you have been claiming to carry out activities which include trespass, criminal damage and removal of property which you do not own,” it said.
“Up to this point, although I have received a number of complaints regarding your actions, I have taken the view that you are well intentioned and have refrained from taking those matters further.
“One complaint, however, really concerns me. I understand you believe you are in a position to carry out risk assessments and then cut down branches and trees which overhang highways. This is not acceptable as you are putting yourself and other members of the public in danger.
“I must insist you stop these activities now before someone gets hurt. If you continue, I will ask for investigations to commence and appropriate action will be taken.” Mr Render previously hit the headlines when he took matters into his own hands after weeks of complaints, dumping a bag of riubbusn in the foyer of the civic centre.
“I chose waste that wasn’t toxic and wouldn’t cause any damage. I was just returning their property as it fell out of their bins because they’re overflowing,” he said.
Coun Michael Mordey, City Council Portfolio Holder for City Services, said: “The City Council welcomes and encourages members of the public to help keep their communities clean and tidy.
“Yet the council has concerns when some of Mr Render’s activities are endangering himself and other members of the public.
“The council has expressed these concerns to Mr Render and that he should refrain from some of his activity.”