Skip to main content

Permitted Development (Basements)

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 12 November 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the construction of new basements and extensions to basements; and for connected purposes.

In a growing city, where house prices are enough to make grown men cry, what could have made more sense than amending the permitted development regulations in 2009, to allow residents to use their space more effectively and to build an extension, an attic conversion or a basement to provide more room for a growing family? Such is the logic that underpinned the amendment of those regulations, and the trend has been accelerated under this Government.

What no one could have foreseen is the impact that that would have in certain neighbourhoods in my constituency, and particularly elsewhere in central London, which is shocking even the most zealous advocates of planning deregulation. The grounds for such deregulation have literally, as well as metaphorically, been cut from underneath the feet of those advocates.

In my own borough of Westminster, the number of approvals given for basement excavations almost trebled between 2010 and 2012, while the number of applications that were refused fell: 518 basement applications have been made in the past four years alone, with only one in seven being refused. My understanding is that the figure for Kensington is closer to 1,000 applications, with 800 accepted. We should be in no doubt about the extent to which this trend will ripple outwards, particularly into more affluent communities.

Two factors make this picture even starker. First, basement excavations are overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of postcode areas—Bayswater and St John’s Wood in my constituency, with the same pattern emerging in Kensington, Hammersmith, Camden and Brent. As the south-east Bayswater residents association says,

“Due to high property values there is inexorable pressure to build on every inch of spare space—now mainly by excavating basements, often with the loss of a garden—because building upwards is well controlled.”

Secondly, and crucially, we are not talking about the modest adaptation of a home for a growing family, or at least the kind of growing family that does not need a ballroom. Basement excavations have included ballrooms, swimming pools, spa complexes, gyms, gun rooms, private cinemas and garages with lifts and turntables for cars. They are not so much basements as vast subterranean pleasure palaces. Some people call them icebergs. I have likened looking down into one such scheme in St John’s Wood as being on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

One development in Kensington was recently described as being eight times the size of a typical London house. A Westminster example was described thus in the Evening Standard:

“Two mansions in Mayfair back on to each other,”

and the owners’ plan

“is to link them with a tunnel, creating a 14,000 sq ft underground area, with an enormous games room, sauna, pool, media room, car park and a plant room. Above that will be further bedrooms, staff rooms, two suites, a laundry room and security rooms. If and when it is completed, the combined home and its underground area will be marginally smaller than Westminster Cathedral.

In another case, four extra underground storeys include twelve bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a huge ballroom, a swimming pool, a hot tub, sauna and a massage room…carved out, going deeper into the London soil than the neighbouring buildings are tall. The Duchess of St Albans, a neighbour…has described the plan as ‘absolutely monstrous and unnecessary’ because ‘no one needs that much space’.

It is estimated that this scheme will involve shovelling 1,375 skipfuls of earth from under the house.”

Serious incidents arising from these excavations are, thankfully, still rare, but even so a skip fell through the road in a development in Belgravia last year, while a builder was buried alive in excavation works in Fulham. Worryingly, the Health and Safety Executive has delivered a damning verdict on the lack of safety in building sites across west London neighbourhoods where downward extensions were taking place. In April, the HSE reported that one in three of these luxury bunkers is being built with reckless disregard to the safety of the builders. It made unannounced visits to 110 domestic basement extension sites in the capital in March. It served 50 prohibition notices and stopped work at 34 sites. Poor excavation or structural support was found to be a recurrent problem, along with unsafe working at height, which is perhaps ironic for sites below ground level. The inspectors also visited 291 other sites during their month-long blitz, and of those 59 failed to meet approved safety standards—a failure rate of 20% compared with the basement failure rate of 31%.

What matters here is not just the impact of the individual project, but the cumulative impact of so many basement excavations on their neighbours and local communities. The fact is that residents are increasingly feeling under siege. Constituents of mine come to me reporting that first one immediate neighbour and then another are embarking on months, sometimes years, of excavation work, leaving them as islands in a sea of filth, noise, damaged roads and pavements, and worse. One constituent wrote last week to tell me:

“I know that two hundred year old houses do need work done on them but have a look at Hamilton Terrace”—

in NW8—

“It will be a building site and a development opportunity forever. A fine Georgian street has been turned into a greed magnet.”

Sometimes, works are carried out with sensitivity and consideration, often they are not, and it is not uncommon for the whole project to be managed through a company with which interaction is impossible. Sometimes, party wall agreements can be negotiated and are adhered to, but often residents found themselves massively outgunned by the companies and their lawyers, left in legal limbo or hugely out of pocket. As my constituent, Sir Hugh Cortazzi put it in a recent letter,

“Developers in their pursuit of profits generally do not seem to care about the convenience and amenities of local residents and neighbours.”

It is not just about near neighbours. We all have a common interest in the preservation of our trees, many of which face being compromised by the thin soil of gardens dug up and relaid over basement excavations. We have a shared interest in the preservation of our water table and the need to preserve soakaway capacity. The St John’s Wood Society says:

“Our planning committee is fully committed to doing all we can to preserve the character, gardens and historic buildings of the Conservation Area. We are…constantly thwarted by the lack of adequate planning policies to support our objections to excessive basement applications which are submitted, more often than not, by developers who have little or no interest in the area.

Unfortunately, current planning policy does not provide case officers with robust grounds for refusal which can be successfully upheld on appeal. Not only do these works take a long time to carry out…several schemes are being developed either simultaneously or consecutively and the situation has become intolerable for an ever increasing number of…residents. We are not against anyone improving and extending their homes…but the new brand of home extension in the shape of vast excavation works needs addressing urgently.”

Councils have found themselves unable to resist the rising tide of basement development, so now, four or five years in, they are developing local policies to restrict what can and cannot be done. But here is the rub, and the purpose of my Bill today. There is a real risk that their policies will turn out to be unenforceable. Already, Kensington council has had to delay the introduction of new, tougher policies, amid fears that they will not withstand a well-funded appeal. And well-funded appeals there will definitely be, since developers are investing, and hoping to gain from, sums of money that make the planning enforcement capacity of even a Kensington or Westminster council look puny. Westminster council is consulting on its new basement policy, too, but it recognises that there is only so much that it can do within the law as it stands.

The fact is that only a change in the law can help local councils do what they want to do to protect their residents. They need—our urban neighbourhoods and their residents need—statutory protection to underpin policies that would, for example, limit excavations to one storey and ensure that they are not built under listed buildings, that they do not take up more than 50% of gardens, that traffic management plans are in place, that the amount of space that is taken up is reduced from the current 85%, that they require the compulsory installation of pumps to prevent flooding from sewers, and much more.

Writing in his Evening Standard column, the Kensington resident and writer, Simon Jenkins, lamented that

“Giant diggers are advancing along the stucco terraces of Westminster and Kensington like monsters in H G Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’. London’s guts are being ripped out. Its water table is subsiding into a gigantic marbled sump. No one is doing a blind thing about it.”

It is time to do something about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ms Karen Buck, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Mark Field, Glenda Jackson, Frank Dobson, Barry Gardiner, Mr Gareth Thomas, Clive Efford and Mr Andy Slaughter present the Bill.

Ms Karen Buck accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 November and to be printed (Bill 127).