The Safer Basements Campaign Campaigning for responsible building and planning Thu, 03 Dec 2015 16:47:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Breaking news: House collapses on The Terrace Thu, 03 Dec 2015 16:42:03 +0000 A house overlooking the river on Barnes Terrace which was had recently undergone a basement excavation has collapsed. The house was the subject of a major redevelopment which involved removing the roof. Full details of the planning application for the basement extension can be found here.
The historic house was owned by pop star Duffy until it was sold for £3.5 million in May 2014. It is also the former home of Ebenezer Cobb Morely the inventor of the rules of Association Football.
A spokesman for the safer basements campaign has said “We started our campaign because we were so concerned about the safety of building basements in an area so close to the river. Much of Barnes is reclaimed marshland. Despite this, there are no compulsory requirements for the plans for basements in Barnes to have been properly assessed by specialist structural engineers with a knowledge of the dangers of building in such areas.”

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Julian Lloyd Webber Joins the Chorus Tue, 01 Dec 2015 19:43:08 +0000 Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 19.32.58

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We’re not against basements, we just want them to be safer Tue, 01 Dec 2015 19:11:36 +0000 Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the building collapse at 26 the Terrace, rumours have been circulating about its cause(s). Whatever the cause, no-one at this time can know the answer to the complex questions that arise from the collapse until full facts and a detailed, expert investigation is conducted and has reported its findings.

There are inevitably commercial interests in the village for whom certain outcomes of such an investigation would necessarily require them to give amended advice to their potential clients and they are hoping to second-guess that outcome with hasty comments such as, ‘it’s nothing to do with the works’, ‘it isn’t the basement that’s at fault’ etc

To make our position clear:

1 We are not against basements per se. We are in favour of better protection for the neighbours of basement excavation and for neighbours’ concerns to be heard and acted upon.

2 We would like to see better control and more qualified preparation and scrutiny of the research and engineering involved in lengthy developments of this kind.

3 We do not yet know the causes of the building collapse at no. 26 Terrace

4 The press across the capital have taken great interest in the incident because the issue of basement excavation is topical, controversial and newsworthy. Journalists contacted us, as they did other residents near to the Terrace, for comment, we did not seek them out. There are basement stories in the London newspapers virtually every week. It was inevitable that this collapse would generate speculation as to its cause. Other buildings and parts of them, usually those of neighbours, have collapsed in recent years in many places in London as a result of basement excavation, some including fatalities, so it is not altogether surprising that discussion would turn to whether it was a factor in this house that had recently had a basement extension excavated.

5 We have no agenda nor financial interest in making basement excavation safer. Our aim is to protect neighbours from the misery that they so often experience, by improving the protocols by which the council operate Planning Policy.

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Letter to Richmond Council , MPs and London Press Tue, 01 Dec 2015 11:24:20 +0000 THE FOLLOWING EMAIL HAS BEEN SENT THIS MORNING TO RICHMOND COUNCIL, MPs AND LONDON PRESS

Dear Councillors (& Zac Goldsmith MP)

We do hope that our not having received any acknowledgement to our previous email relating to an investigation into the causes of the building collapse on The Terrace is not a reflection of it being low on your list of local priorities at this time. It would be hard to under-estimate the level of anxiety, frustration and concern in the effectiveness of the Council’s role in basement approval and development felt by residents in the light of this distressing event.

We note that an investigation is being carried out by the Health & Safety Executive and hope it will be a thorough and EXPERT investigation of the building collapse; can you confirm that is so and assure us who in that team has expertise and qualifications relating to engineering geology, groundwater hydrology, ground engineering and structural engineering especially of temporary works? In this regard we request that the full membership of the investigative team and their relevant qualifications will be made public.

We are also concerned that the Planning Department, which gave permissions to alterations to this and other Terrace properties, may be involved in the investigation and if so can we be assured that their involvement will purely be in giving evidence?

You will appreciate the deep unease and mistrust that residents now have in the whole area and we ask your assurance that this investigation will be conducted on behalf of all residents of the borough, not be reduced to an internal review of Council process.

We also trust that those chosen to conduct the investigation will not be influenced by the assurances of developers and contractors whom, faced with massive potential liabilities, will seek to absolve themselves and their clients, by any means, from culpability.

There are 3 unquestionable “knowns” in this case; viz. The ground is NOT to blame, the houses are NOT to blame but it is the work of man that has caused this collapse, and damage to the properties of many residents blighted by basement development.

Residents expect answers to the following questions, all of which can be answered:

  • What were the qualifications of the designers and technical advisers to the project at 26 The Terrace?
  • If ground tests were conducted at the time of planning application, why have they not been made public on the online page devoted to the application?
  • Were any hydrological and geological tests conducted at the same time of year as the proposed excavation and state of tides?
  • Were any calculations of land stability made?
  • What factor of safety did the calculations for land stability there yield?
  • Why was the subterranean extension work approved with no ground investigation as far as can be seen on record?
  • What was/were the qualification/s of the person/s who approved the proposal?
  • What were the qualifications of the Main contractor?
  • What was the Construction Management scheme proposed?
  • Did the council at the time of application make a proper search of the developers’ past record in excavating basements or in making such significant alterations to historic buildings?
  • What were the qualifications of the sub-contractors?
  • What checks did the council perform as to their competence at the time of planning application?
  • What were the qualifications of the site supervisors?
  • What actions did the Council take at the time of application to confirm that the basement excavation at no. 27 The Terrace (next door) prior to this one had not already undermined neighbouring properties? The resident at no. 28 The Terrace has written to us that Our listed Georgian home, as well as our lives, have been comprehensively wrecked during the past 3 years due to a basement extension and other extensive building works at no. 27, which included underpinning our house.” Their evidence is crucial and surely must be heard.
  • In the light of the damage caused by the basement excavation at no. 27, how was it possible for the Council to agree to another basement extension at no. 26 without expert technical scrutiny of the most demanding level being applied?
  • Whatever might have triggered the precise moment of collapse of the building at no. 26, we hope the council will acknowledge that any prior movement or settlement of the building(s) as a result, for example, of groundwater displacement so close to the flood wall, will have contributed to the instability of the part-gutted house.
  • Were neighbours’ concerns about this development or that at no. 27 The Terrace properly taken into account when the owner-developers of these two properties began the process of de-constructing and digging underneath such old and fragile structures? Or were the concerns of residents dismissed, as they have been routinely for years, because there is no law or Core Strategy to protect them, and the council need not fear legal repercussions?

Given that these are questions that come to mind immediately it is abundantly clear there is something fundamentally wrong with the way things are being done at present. No doubt we will be told “Lessons will be learnt” but until that time comes we seek your confirmation that all applications for major works including basement excavations at present in the pipe-line, for example, 27 Charles St283 Lonsdale Road15 Ranelagh Avenue48 Elm Grove Road24 Suffolk Road, 26 Melville Road, be suspended until the lessons to be learnt from this Inquiry are known.

Given the depth of feeling amongst residents in the Barnes area it is irresponsible, untimely and insensitive to residents’ concerns and an abrogation of the trust placed in Councillors at their election to ignore this request. Our previous email for an immediate moratorium on subterranean applications until more is understood about the causes, implications and consequential actions of the collapse at 26 The Terrace, remains unanswered and a response to it should surely be a priority.

With best wishes

The Safer Basement Campaign: Residents of Barnes, Mortlake and Sheen

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Libby Purves Slams Basement Vandals Tue, 01 Dec 2015 09:55:20 +0000 Interesting article by Libby Purves. See more on our links page

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Why basement builders and approvers should examine their conscience Fri, 27 Nov 2015 08:17:40 +0000 We’ve just received this eloquently drafted comment on yesterday’s house collapse from a resident who has recently moved into the Beverley Brook flood plain, who has chosen not to put a basement underneath his home.
Readers of history can sometimes wonder in amazement why certain decisions were made, such is the benefit of hindsight that is given to the reader of the book. I cannot help but wonder whether in twenty years time whether this will be the case for the proliferation of basements in London and most specifically in the areas of London that would otherwise be a pond if it were not for certain preventative measures. I am by nature a libertarian who believes that people should be allowed to do what they want to do, with the essential caveat that what they do does not detrimentally affect other people, especially when those people can do nothing about it.

On Thursday we had the awful news of a building collapsing opposite the White Hart Pub in Barnes. It is too early to tell whether this was caused in its entirety by the basement that was being extended, but it is another piece of evidence amongst the many. If this does not make the council completely reconsider it blanket approval policy for basements that it currently operates, what indeed will?

I can hear the cries of the detractors already:

1) My builders are better,

2) It had nothing to do with the basement excavation,

3) These houses are old we should expect it,

4) It’s my right to do what I want on my property.

Taking each of these points in turn:

1) If indeed your builders are better they will realise that due diligence would involve a 12 month testing period to see the real effects of the excavation on the neighbouring properties.

2) I am not naïve to assume that something can be proven 100% but what do we require for complete certain proof? Would a control experiment need to take place where nothing in the house is moved at all and all that is done is a basement is excavated ?

3) This point hardly deserves an answer given the quality of the builds of the houses that have collapsed, cracked, shifted and twisted. The house could be perfectly constructed but if the ground around it moves then the battle is lost and something has to give

4) This is ruining peoples homes, well being and as we saw today actually endangering their lives.

At the end of the day it comes down to a matter of conscience for those applying for the basement and those approving it. What will it take for people to actually start acting on the turmoil and nightmare incidents that we have seen with increasing frequency over the past few years. Kensington have acted, isn’t it about time that Richmond follows suit before our consciences can’t deal with the next event?”

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Campaign urges council to place a moratorium on all basement applications in light of house collapse Thu, 26 Nov 2015 22:30:56 +0000 This is the letter the campaign has sent to all Richmond Councillors today in the light of the house collapse in Barnes.

Dear Councillors

In the light of today’s disastrous events on Barnes Terrace, on behalf of Barnes residents, we request that the council place an immediate moratorium on further basement excavation applications until an inquiry and thorough investigation into the reasons for the collapse of a Georgian house so close to the river defence wall protecting thousands of Barnes homes is conducted and acted upon. In particular, how it was possible for such a basement to have been given permission without having had proper testing of the ground conditions in the first place. The permission for the basement enlargement at no. 26 The Terrace was even delegated to the case officer (in October 2014). It is a mercy that no one was killed or injured in today’s collapse either inside the property or in the street.

For residents who have lived next or near to previous basement excavations in the unstable, waterlogged ground of Barnes damage to neighbouring properties is depressingly common-place. All over Barnes there are examples of substantial damage to properties including walls moving and cracking, doors and windows jamming, ceiling collapse, gas pipes moving and leaking, pumps malfunctioning and water rushing into cavities and so on. How much more collective damage is needed before our concerns are taken seriously? Whilst today’s events were dramatic and severe, we are not unfortunately surprised that one of these structures would at some point collapse.

We are calling for proper, rigorous controls to be put in place, for an immediate amendment to the Core Strategy in line with protocols being adopted in Kensington and Camden, and for owner-developers who wish to excavate basements to be obliged to prove that neighbouring properties will not be damaged before planning permission is granted. Protocols such as these may have prevented the calamity that occurred today, indeed proper, expert understanding of the ground and the water within it so close to the flood wall would in all likelihood have advised that the basement not be enlarged in the first place. We believe the council is being negligent in its duty of care to residents and in protecting their property.

Contractors responsible for the construction at 26 The Terrace are claiming publicly that the collapse is ‘nothing to do with the works’, that it’s ‘just an old building’. Until the Council toughens up to this kind of breath-taking arrogance and irresponsibility, developers will continue to make a mockery of the planning process. They fear no sanction, not even an exclusion from future planning applications, if they violate planning conditions or indeed allow a historic building to fall down. All of these ‘old’ houses stood safely for hundreds of years before basements started to be excavated underneath them.

By way of an example of the current laissez-faire attitude to basement excavation, not one of the following current applications conducted a proper ground investigation before seeking permission: 24 Suffolk Road, 26 Melville Road, 48 Elm Grove Road, and 15 Ranelagh Avenue.

We hope that what a police officer on the site of today’s building collapse said is not true, namely that they feared that the 18th century (Grade II Listed) property next door, no. 27 The Terrace, might also collapse in a domino effect. As you will know, wilful damage to a Listed building is a criminal offence carrying a custodial sentence and unlimited fine. It is not yet known what deferred damage the collapse of no. 26 The Terrace will have on no. 27, whose occupants were evacuated this morning during the collapse.

The Council has a legal positive obligation to protect neighbours from damage and we request that you immediately take steps to clamp down as a matter of urgency on over-development and excavation into unsuitable ground. The safety of residents and their homes is at risk.

The Safer Basement Group.

cc Paul Garlick QC

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Who are the Safer Basements Group and what are our objectives? Thu, 26 Nov 2015 17:30:28 +0000 First of all, it is important to say that we acknowledge that people have a right in principle to develop their homes by way of extension, outwards, above or below, and that the current UK law supports them (overwhelmingly) in so doing. Where there is dispute or doubt about this right it is where such development impacts upon neighbours and their right to live in peace without their home being damaged in the process. Our aim is to find ways of reducing the worst aspects of the consequences of such development on neighbours both during the period of works and in their aftermath. Whilst all forms of house renovation creates some degree of noise and disruption for neighbours, and ‘reasonable’ levels of both are allowed under current legislation, the excavation of a basement is a form of development that far exceeds all other types of building work in two key ways – its impact on the ground & associated movement beyond the footprint of the house in question, and the unreasonable lengths of time it takes to create a basement compared to other extensions: a minimum of 18 months but ordinarily 2-3 years. A case in Barnes, currently in progress, is approaching its fourth year of works, and examples in other boroughs have lasted as long as seven years.

We would like to see our local authority, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (LBRuT) use what leverage it has in the planning process, namely the withholding and granting of permission, to place conditions on would-be basement owner-developers at the point of application that would significantly improve the protection of the unfortunate neighbours who live near or next to such an excavation. Once Planning Permission is granted neither residents nor the council have any meaningful sanctions to limit or penalise contractors for the damage or disruption they invariably cause. We believe it is possible to avoid damage and limit disruption (noise, dirt, dust, traffic obstruction etc) by measures taken before Planning Permission is granted, rather than merely react to it once it has begun. The onus of proof of damage should be shifted from the victims of damage and disturbance, to those who cause such damage and disturbance – the owner-developers, who have already made a mental calculation that two or three years of misery for neighbours is trumped by their need for an extra gym/store-room/cinema.

Barnes has a particular geology and hydrology. Different parts of the village vary in soil type and in their proximity to the banks of the tidal Thames, to Beverley Brook, or to subterranean water channels that may have been covered over or partially drained in the past 100 or so years but which continue to flow beneath our streets and homes. Parts of the village particularly those near the Common were once boggy marsh. Even ASUCplus, a trade organisation of the ‘underpinning’ industry, who publish a guide to excavating basements for their members, state in this guide that the two main soil types – cohesive soils (mud, clay) and non-cohesive soils (sand, gravel) – involve dramatically different challenges in manipulation and all but admit that digging successfully and safely in non-cohesive soils is potentially hazardous because such soil types are not ‘self-supporting’. Any gardener knows that digging down into a sandy, gravelly soil triggers a complete collapse of the sides of any hole and any moisture or water in that soil vastly exacerbates such collapse (try making a neat square box-hole with firm sides on a beach!). Much if not all of Barnes is standing on just such non-cohesive soil. Many geologists would advise against excavating basements in such terrain altogether. The Victorians were prolific basement-diggers throughout London, yet when they began the rapid terraced development of Barnes in the 1890s, they expressly avoided adding basements to new homes precisely because they understood the fragile nature of the ground. Moreover, any home-owner in Barnes with a garden will have witnessed first-hand how the ground is becoming year on year more waterlogged, that the water in the soil is increasing with what seems to be a rising water table, and along with this saturation comes instability for any new building work upon it or excavation into it. We believe that LBRuT Planning department does not grasp the significance of these facts, that most basement-digging contractors do not (or would rather not) grasp the significance of these facts, and that the high incidence of damage to neighbouring houses from basement excavations in Barnes is caused by the nature of the ground here and by the failure of developers and planners to respond to it with expertise and care.

Basement excavation as an issue for public concern and debate was until recent years restricted to sensational newspaper reports of massive oligarch-style ‘iceberg’ developments amongst the super-rich in Notting Hill and Belgravia. Thanks to rapid house price inflation, it is now an issue for all boroughs in the capital. There is not a home in Barnes now that is safe from a basement being dug next door. The proliferation of basements is causing alarm across London but other borough councils are further ahead of the curve in putting in place modern strategies to limit unnecessary damage and disruption whilst LBRuT is lagging behind with what can only be described as watered-down and unenforceable ‘guidelines’ for basement development. Partly this is historical, since house valuations have only soared in the borough to Central London levels in recent years, and also because until 2008 when the council’s Strategic Flood Risk Assessment was revised, basement excavation in Barnes was prohibited under Zone 3b (‘Functional Floodplain’) directives. Despite the fact no new flood defences have been erected since 2008, Environment Agency flood modelling in conjunction with the LBRuT’s Environment department deemed that Barnes should be re-classified as Zone 3a (‘High Probability’ Flood zone), thereby allowing basement developments (as a guide to the curve of proliferation, within 5 years, that is in 2013, 190 basement applications were made in the borough). Thus, it is possible for a large basement development and swimming pool to be granted permission this year at 42, Nassau Road, even though being only a few metres from the river flood wall it is designated as being in the ‘Indicative Rapid Inundation Zone’ but not in Zone 3b, the ‘Functional Floodplain’. How it is thought that – in the event of a breaching of the Barnes Terrace flood wall – this permitted basement would fill entirely with dirty river water within perhaps five minutes of such a breach yet be ‘safe’ either for its occupants or its neighbours would surely be a mystery to most rational thinkers. Likewise, the ‘solution’ to the high levels of groundwater to be found under virtually every house in Barnes when a basement is dug into such saturated soil, is to install 24-hour pumps in the developed house that will (a) make their engine noise for all time, no matter the disturbance and aggravation to neighbours, and (b) set of warning alarms at all times of the day or night, often to alert proprietors who may not even be at the house at the time. This is water management worthy of the imagination of Lewis Carroll.

At the heart of much of the disquiet about subterranean development is a feeling of frustration and powerlessness at the inherent democratic deficit in the planning procedure. How is it fair or equitable that the grandiose development plans of just one home-owner who will not live at the address whilst works are underway and who may not even live there once the works are completed if the project is speculative, to overrule the objections and peaceful living of a much larger number of neighbours? Why do the livelihoods of neighbours who work from home, or the peace and quiet of shift workers sleeping during the day, or the retired, or the infirm or the very young, count for nothing against the expansionist building plans of one owner-developer? Isn’t the very point of tiers of governance in civilised societies – councils, MPs, London-wide bodies, Parliament, government departments and so on, to protect people from the excessive demands of individuals that impact negatively upon others? We believe that current laws and council planning procedures are not at all impartial but fall down heavily in favour of the developing party, and that this imbalance needs to be redressed urgently.

A good example of this imbalance in practice is the matter of planning conditions – hours of working, duration of building sequence, blocking of roads, reduction of parking spaces, noise, dirt, dust, vermin infestations, interruption of power etc – and their depressingly widespread violation.

The awful experience of those who have lived next to or nearby such developments is a matter of shame not just for the contractors and owner-developers responsible but also for the LBRuT’s Planning, Enforcement and Environment departments for not supervising and penalising such violations as they occur, nor, at Planning Application stage, being tougher in imposing meaningful conditions and ways of sanctioning violations thereafter. The Council have no mechanism available to them to place a restriction on the overall duration of works: why not? What interpretation of the law can be so loose that a noisy, dirty, three or four year building project in a private terraced house is deemed to be ‘reasonable’? If drilling or pile-driving, to take just one example, takes place after 1pm on a Saturday, no enforcement official is available to police such a violation until office hours on Monday. If, as has been suggested, the council’s enforcement team is so over-stretched that it simply cannot keep up with the level of violations nor penalise offending parties, why are stricter, more onerous sanctions not put in place in the first instance, or – heaven forfend – permissions refused until such time as the council can enforce its own rules?

A series of Health & Safety spot-checks on basement excavations in West London performed in March revealed staggering results. As reported in the Guardian, “In a two-day blitz, the Health and Safety Executive sent inspectors to 127 homes in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and parts of Westminster. At two construction sites, conditions were so dangerous that inspectors closed them down immediately. Enforcement action was taken at 62 of the sites – an overall rate of 48% – with 44 prohibition notices served requiring dangerous practices to stop immediately, 12 improvement notices served requiring safety improvements to be made and 63 notifications of contravention served identifying material breaches.”

This evidence is truly appalling, as are the first-hand reports of those who have suffered through a neighbour’s basement excavation and yet, in every single case of these shocking and routine violations a smart architect, engineer or owner-developer would have presented themselves to the Council concerned at Planning Application hearings as professional, reasonable, concerned about the potential impact on neighbours, giving the usual promises about observing planning conditions and respecting the neighbourhood, ticking the boxes and satisfying council regulations, filling in forms claiming to honour such regulations and to protect the environment in which they intend to operate. Every developer makes these easy assurances of ‘best practice’ and the overwhelming evidence is that such assurances are utterly meaningless when the work begins in earnest. The only agency available to protect neighbourhoods from this level of disruption and negligence is the local council and the only time the council has a meaningful leverage over developers is at the point when the latter are seeking planning permission. We believe the LBRuT is failing in its duty to protect residents in its current planning procedures.

Residents who live directly adjacent to a basement development are obliged to agree a Party Wall Agreement with the owner-developers. The PWA was designed at a time before subterranean development was common and is only intended to facilitate compensation for damage, rather than as a mechanism for preventing damage in the first place. It is notoriously weak in protecting the victims of damage, framed as it was originally to allow development to go ahead and the process of extracting compensation and arbitration through it is frustratingly slow and lengthy. Again, the onus of proof is on the victims of damage rather than on its perpetrators and the typically very wealthy owner-developers of basements are able to use the PWA to bully into submission their exhausted, stressed neighbours over long periods of dispute.

The PWA, despite its considerable failings, is at least a legal basis on which to pursue some kind of compensation, for immediate neighbours. The digging-out of a basement and the movement of ground it can precipitate in certain soil conditions, however, often affects houses nearby that are not protected by the PWA. A basement excavation at no. 14 Ranelagh Avenue in 2008-9 permitted by the Council so disturbed the ground that no fewer than three other houses were damaged, only one of which was the subject of a PWA. Repairs amounting to thousands of pounds had to be made to these neighbouring homes, not one penny of which was offered by the owner-developer in compensation, safe in the knowledge that no law or condition of planning permission obliged him to do so. For home owners in the near vicinity of subterranean developments who are not signatories of a compulsory PWA, the LBRuT’s Planning Application procedure is the only protection available, and it is so far a protection that has rarely, if ever, been exercised. This is negligent and unacceptable.

All councils are legally bound (that is, they have a ‘positive obligation’) under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, Article 1, Protocol 1) and Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 to take proportionate & necessary steps to ensure that when granting permission to a building project they protect neighbouring properties from avoidable damage. We believe LBRuT is not fulfilling this legal obligation.

These, then, are the objectives of the Safer Basements Group:

We call on the LBRuT to draw up new core strategies with respect to basement applications in line with tougher Camden & Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea protocols, in particular to require a Basement Impact Assessment before Planning Consent is given, as is the case in those boroughs. The onus on the developing party should be to prove that a basement will not damage neighbouring homes and permission should be withheld until such time as definitive assurances, through proper, detailed testing, modelling and expert engineering solutions, can be given.

We ask the LBRuT to allow disruption, nuisance, disturbance of neighbours in the extended period of a basement development as a valid reason for objection to Planning Applications (as is the case, for example, in the RBK&C).

We request that the LBRuT Planning Department acknowledge that a basement excavation under one house in a terrace is a very different structural proposition than an excavation under a detached house and that this be reflected in the level of scrutiny and diligence applied to applicants wishing to develop in a terrace or a semi-detached property. Analysis and testing of conditions should be proportionate to the far greater risk to neighbours involved in a terrace or semi-detached house. To all intents & purposes, Victorian/Edwardian terraced & semi-detached houses with shallow foundations such as are found throughout Barnes are structurally speaking one building with separate front doors. If risk of damage to neighbours is judged to be too great, permission should be withheld in compliance with protocols of the ECHR/HRA.

We advise the LBRuT that they need to upgrade their expertise in assessing engineering proposals at planning stage and urgently to tighten their monitoring of excavations so that poor, inconsiderate or dangerous engineering can be identified before consent is given and breaches of planning conditions better understood & penalised (and if necessary, work halted).

We propose that any contractors/engineers/architects who violate planning conditions on Health & Safety, disruption, noise, dirt, obstruction of highways, working hours etc be automatically disqualified from being involved in further planning applications. This, in one stroke, would improve the quality of the works undertaken and begin a far better level of protection for residents from the adverse affects of development, since currently contractors and owner-developers have no reason to fear temporary pauses in works, nor fines, the value of which is small change for developments worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

We suggest that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in the spirit of the Localism Act 2011, announce that he/she will not henceforth overrule local councils on planning appeal matters specifically in cases of private residential development. Overnight this would embolden Councils, currently nervous of the cost and time involved in defending their decision at appeal, to begin refusing permissions on a case by case basis.

We request that the Mayor of London act upon the unanimous all-party motion of the London Assembly on 5th March 2014, calling on the Mayor “to revise the FALP to include a specific policy against inappropriate basement development” and “to develop a specific policy that ensures London’s subterranean landscape development does not blight resident’s lives.”

Safer Basements Group
November 18th 2015
Contact us:

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How basement digging misery affects neighbours Thu, 26 Nov 2015 16:30:37 +0000 Since we launched the campaign we have received many emails from Barnes residents reporting the misery of living close to a basement dig.

This particularly distressing message shows just how bad things can get.

Basements in SW13

In the autumn of 2009 we received a notice from LBRuT of a basement construction in the property next to ours. As obliged to do so we found a surveyor and duly signed the Party Wall Agreement. Shortly after the two surveyors met at the property, where the Building Owners surveyor assured us there would be no damage whatsoever, and in the event of anything which concerned us we should contact him.

At the beginning of 2010 the contractor began to remove the adjoining house, save for the front elevation. We were deluged with dust on a daily basis to say nothing of the noise damage inflicted upon us. The road and pavement were littered with building debris, including screws and nails. Skip swap overs happened at 0500 – well, there was no one around in the road – though the skip was right outside our bedroom window.

In the PWA the only specified obligation on the builder was to seal our chimney before removing the one in the neighbours house. We were drinking coffee in the village on a Saturday morning in March 2010 when one of our children called to say that there was a black cloud drifting out of the sitting room. All our furniture, curtains and hifi was covered in soot, which convection currents then moved around the entire house.

The following week I made representations to the builder about a lack of care generally, and specifically the nails in the street puncturing car tyres. He countered by telling me his were the only licensed skips in the street and he did things properly, unlike other builders. When I suggested that conflating all the building issues in the street was not going to be productive, the façade of nothing being too much trouble vanished. The builder told me he could and would do exactly as he pleased and that there was nothing I could do about it.

At this stage it became apparent that our surveyor was a mixture of powerless and useless. There were meetings between the surveyors but nothing ever happened. When I mentioned that I was the only one at these meetings not being paid, the Building Owners surveyor let it slip that as he did so much work for the contractor he had agreed to do this supposedly small job for nothing. Most people, particularly of the professional classes, would recognise such an arrangement to be a conflict of interest, and indeed such action is specifically banned in the PW Act. I wrote to the compliance department of the surveyors practice and the RICS, and was flanneled in response.

By the middle of June 2010 the bricklayers arrived, along with the hot weather. The bricks were all cut on site and the heat billowed the dust liberally over the surrounding area. The noise all day was horrendous on top, and it was simply impossible to occupy our home during hours when the builders were present. In addition our children favoured going to stay with fiends when they were home from school, and for the older ones, just not coming to see us.

By this stage signs of damage were beginning to appear in our property. It appeared that the underpinning had dropped or shifted our house. Cracks duly appeared inside and out. In addition the join between the front and rear of our house was seriously disrupted. All the surveyors suggested was that this was not out of the ordinary, and would be fixed in due course. The surveyors promised to begin a schedule of works to be carried out when the award was made. Needless to say nothing happened.

By the autumn of 2010 my wife began to present with a series of issues which her doctor and a number of specialists said could only have been caused by stress. Some people might have become depressed, but as a bright vivacious woman these issues affected her in a different way. However, the sight of her home being blighted every day with builders dust, the filth all over the furniture and the wear inflicted by chronic builders noise, eventually wore her down. We spent a year on consultations and diagnosis eventually having to settle with a variety of medications, the bulk of which simply slowed her down and prevented her from becoming agitated by the relentless torment of living on a building site.

At the same time I contacted LBRuT’s planning section. I raised their attention to violations of the building regulations concerning the colour of the bricks used, the style of the windows at the front, and the concreting of the entire neighbours garden without a soakaway. In addition the builder had used the down pipe on my modest side return to drain all the water from the whole of the neighbours roof. The first two issues spoiled the area because they were inconsistent with the way in which the properties had been build in the locality. The second two exposed me to rain water on an uncontrolled basis.

I was told by LBRuT that these were all serious concerns and would be dealt with by the Borough Surveyor, prior to signing off the work. Needless to say nothing happened.

In May 2011 the neighbours reoccupied their property. The surveyors suggested a schedule of works be drawn up; a builder found by me; and the repairs completed to our satisfaction as soon as possible. What became clear here was that neither the Building Owner, or his surveyor had any incentive to put right our damage. It also became apparent that my surveyor was adequate if there was nothing to do or resolve, but completely ineffectual in any negotiation resolution process.

I was then forced to enter another aspect of the PWA – the Third Surveyor. This is an appointment by the Building Owners surveyor of someone who will act to arbitrate between the two appointed surveyors in a dispute process. Again there is conflict of interest because the Third Surveyor is going to be someone with who the Building Owners surveyor is familiar.

Moreover, all PW surveyors belong to the highly masonic looking Pyramus and Thisbe Club. As classicists will remember, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is about love between offspring of two families in dispute, and ends in the death of the young people concerned. This has been used many times as the basis of a play by number of playwrights. Quite how surveyors believe these events are synonymous with the role they perform only they can explain. It’s something about maintaining cordial relations between warring parties, presumably without anyone dying.

Even if the principles behind the Pyramus and Thisbe Club are well-intentioned, they are unable to alter the fundamental weakness in PW Agreements which is the administration of a legal process by people totally unqualified to undertake it – surveyors. The Third Surveyor, who is not independent, therefore finds himself presiding over a sort of kangaroo court, where what he says goes. Yes you can appeal to the Court but as the PW Act and PWAs were put in place to keep neighbours out of court, the odds are against you.

Nevertheless, the process dragged on. The Third Surveyor persuaded my surveyor to stand down, stating he was unable to act. I found another surveyor who tried to reach agreement with the Building Owners surveyor, though by this stage there was so much previous that negotiations were unproductive.

At the end of January 2013 the ceiling in our sitting room collapsed one afternoon. It had been looking vulnerable for some while and plaster dust had been falling down for some weeks. The cornice work was also cracked in a number of places. The Building Owners surveyor had staked his reputation on the ceiling staying in place. Fortunately no one was in the room at the time – about 1700. You don’t need a vivid imagination to envision a lathe and plaster ceiling of 100 years coming down. Some of the pieces of masonry were considerable and certainly enough to cause significant damage to any poor soul below. For the rest the filth was unimaginable.

Over the spring and summer of 2013 the surveyors finally submitted damage assessments to the Third Surveyor for his consideration. The Building Owners surveyor offered £2000; our newly appointed surveyor put in a sum closer to £60,000. In the end the Third Surveyor, who was with the Building Owners surveyor a member of the Pyramus and Thisbe Lodge of North Surrey, awarded us nearly £50,000. He excluded a variety of items such as a computer damaged in the ceiling fall, £1000 boiler repair where brick dust had blown the PCB and clogged the ventilation fan, paint damage to my car which had been caused by roller painting the construction in the road which housed a skipped building materials, on a windy day and a variety of other items such as furniture and curtain cleaning.

The nonsense with the Third Surveyor demonstrated the total lack of integrity in the Building Owners surveyor. To offer £2000 in such circumstances does suggest that the surveyor was behaving like a charlatan and was not taking the matter seriously. However, the fuss generated by the difference in the estimates caused a referral to the Third Surveyor, and promoted another round of chargeable hours for all the surveyors, and most particularly for the Building Owners surveyor who had offered to do the initial work for nothing.

Finally, through a builder found by our surveyor, the repairs to our home were undertaken in October, November and early December 2013 four years after the commencement of this sorry affair. We were given no choice in the selection of builder. Again what is shown is a lack of symmetry. We wanted the job done properly. The Building Owner wanted it done as cheaply as possible. In the end we probably got a value job – OK but not exceptional. Plus we were forced to live in two rooms for 10 weeks. No sitting room, no TV room. Yet again the house was filthied by builders dust daily. Hard to believe we were the wronged party.

At this point I would consider the psychology of those digging basements and the impact on their neighbours. You could be very upfront about it and promise to do everything you could to ameliorate the issue. Certainly you could be assiduous about seeing to it that all damage is put right as soon as possible. You could put in sound and dirt dampening measures and all in all do everything you could to treat your long suffering neighbour with decency and sympathy.

Few basement diggers do though. They take the view that they don’t care about neighbourly relations in future. They lie about whether they’re putting a basement in; and they put as many people between the work and themselves – builders, project managers, and of course surveyors. They are prepared to take a risk on the construction. If there’s no damage they discount the attendant misery inflicted on the neighbour for 18/24 months, as though the neighbour is a bit of a whinger. If there is damage then at least they’ve put distance between themselves and the works which need done. It’s about as close as you can get to denial.

We tried to speed up the process of the surveyors award by inviting our neighbour to inspect the damage they had caused. They just didn’t want to know. On the afternoon that the ceiling came down my wife, in a very distressed state knocked on the neighbour’s door, explained what had happened and suggested she came and took a look. The neighbour stated that she wasn’t interested and closed the door. This woman then rang the police and accused us of harassment.

Subsequently, it became clear that the police involvement was a contrived move, harnessing the stalking laws to humiliate ourselves. We were visited by the police and accused of harassment generally, and of playing music loudly. We were then interviewed at a police station where the police said they would let us off, if we accepted a caution. We refused and told the police to prosecute us forthwith. After two weeks the police told us they were not taking the matter any further as though they were doing us a favour. There was never any case to answer.

If your neighbour puts in a basement you have no protection. Worse, forced into a PW Agreement you have legitimised some truly dreadful behaviour which will be coming your way – it’s simply a case of how bad it is. The likelihood is that you will almost certainly end up out of pocket too.

It is about time that LBRuT started to look after the housing interests of the inhabitants of the borough, rather than being exclusively motivated by opportunities to generate more revenue from increases in council tax on properties which have been extended. If there is an obligation under the European Court to protect residents of the borough from basement damage, it should be enforced. Quite easily the Council could put in place a charter to regulate basement excavations, and look to ameliorate most of the stress placed on neighbours. The council could charge handsomely for these licenses and impose significant fines on those flouting the regulations. it would be a start.

A Barnes resident

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Other basement applications currently with Richmond Council Thu, 26 Nov 2015 16:24:33 +0000 See links below

Melville Road

Suffolk Road

Elm Grove Road