Why John steps in to neighbours' disputes

PUBLISHED: 15:57 07 September 2008 | UPDATED: 13:34 06 May 2010

John Gunner taking part in this years St Albans Half-Marathon to raise funds for Mediation Hertfordshire

John Gunner taking part in this years St Albans Half-Marathon to raise funds for Mediation Hertfordshire

DISPUTES between neighbours about anything from overgrown trees to hooliganism are all part of John Gunner s work as a community mediator. As a volunteer of Mediation Hertfordshire he aims to help warring neighbours resolve their problems without going t

DISPUTES between neighbours about anything from overgrown trees to hooliganism are all part of John Gunner's work as a community mediator.

As a volunteer of Mediation Hertfordshire he aims to help warring neighbours resolve their problems without going to court.

John, aged 49, who lives in St Albans, became the chairman of the service last year after joining in 2004 - a year after the service was launched in the district.

Speaking about the variety of cases the service deals with, he said: "It can be anything from a barking dog to hooliganism, sometimes racism, or just a high hedge or somebody parking in the wrong place. They are all fascinating in their own way."

When he was at law school he realised he didn't want to work within the court system but in alternative channels instead. The former pupil of St George's School in Harpenden said: "I was so appalled with the way that lawyers are determined to resolve things through formal processes, that I thought there had to be something better than this method."

With that in mind John took a Masters degree in law and specialised in alternative dispute resolution with the help of one of his professors who was an expert in the field.

John is now a director of a top mediation service called Inter Resolve, which is based in London, but he dedicates much of his spare time to using his skills within the community.

There are about 35 volunteers like him in the area who aren't necessarily from a law background but have been specially trained in mediation.

Individuals can approach the service for help or other agencies such as St Albans District Council or housing associations and police can make referrals.

Both parties are seen separately in the first instance and then a joint meeting is organised which two mediators oversee to ensure all sides have their say without interruption.

John emphasised that in some cases you could actually transform people's lives by merely listening to them. About seven out of every 10 cases he hears can be resolved through mediation.

He hopes to hear about two to three cases a month which are normally resolved within eight weeks, although it can often take longer.

In recent years John, a former district councillor for 12 years, has seen a sharp rise in anti-social-behaviour-related disputes and problems with Leylandii trees which are growing too big after being planted in the 70s.

Though the majority of cases involve people living in close proximity on local estates, John does occasionally deal with problems in very affluent areas.

He was struck by this with one of his very first cases. He said: "It was in a beautiful area where all of the houses were the sort of things you only see in Sunday magazines - they were worth millions. It was an absolutely perfect private road until you actually talked to the people who lived there. They had problems with shared driveways and all of them were saying they were living in absolute hell. I really saw the other side of life and it was not how you would think it was."

With funding from Herts County Council, Mediation Herts will also be branching out into schools in St Albans this year to tackle bullying and parent issues, and students will be specially trained to mediate for their peers.

But funding is drying up in other areas thanks to the credit crunch and the district council has reduced its annual funding from £26,000 to £10,000 as part of £400,000 of savings in the housing department.

A council spokesperson said it seemed unfair for the council housing budget to cover mediation within private housing association properties but added that alternative funding sources were being explored.

But in the meantime Mediation Herts, which costs around £50,000 in total to maintain, is now desperately trying to find ways to make up the shortfall and John has recently raised nearly £400 by running the St Albans Half-Marathon.

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