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Basement Excavation (Restriction of Permitted Development)

Volume 599: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2015

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 restrict the application of permitted development rights; to grant local planning authorities powers to restrict the size and depth of basement excavations underneath or adjacent to residential properties; and for connected purposes.

Some may think that squabbles over the construction of home spas and swimming pools underneath a garden do not matter that much, and that neither does the question of who gets to decide whether and how those constructions can go ahead. I do not agree. Quality of life matters. Local accountability matters. The ability of a locally elected council to act fairly and quickly in response to issues of concern matters. The scourge of the monster basement excavation frequently undermines all three. The fact that most of these planning battles are taking place in some of London’s more affluent neighbourhoods is not grounds for failing to act in defence of their residents.

What is the problem? Basement excavations are both a relatively recent and concentrated problem, but problems they often are. For we talk not of the extended kitchen or extra living space for a growing family, but of “icebergs”: projects that have, at the extreme, involved digging down several levels and hundreds of feet out for home gyms and spas, cinemas and gun rooms, and dance floors and the almost mandatory pools. If people have the money and want to build a private underground spa, that is not a choice that I care about. I do care, however, when these works impact so severely on their neighbours and neighbourhoods, as they have done recently. As Councillor Robert Davis says in the introduction to Westminster council’s new planning policy:

“basement development is a matter of considerable concern to many. Some basement extensions are exceptionally large, the construction phases of work can last for a significant period of time and, in some instances, works have brought an unacceptable level of disruption to neighbours, and resulted in damage to adjoining properties.”

Numbers have soared: there have been 925 in Westminster alone in past eight years, with the numbers doubling between 2008 and 2012—although they have fallen off a little, annually, since then. Of those, just 13% have been refused. One in four applications were refused in 2008. Last year, despite a tightening of the policy by the council, it was still only one in five. In Kensington, another borough subject to significant levels of such developments, there were 450 basement applications in 2013 alone—a 500% increase on 2003 figures.

The impact of the size and scale of basement excavations on immediate neighbours is hard to overstate. Soil removal alone on this scale takes time and generates a significant traffic volume, often causing damage to roads and pavements nearby. Noise levels are hellish. One constituent wrote to me this summer to oppose a scheme in the Maida Vale area saying that the works would include excavations to build an underground swimming pool and the erection of a large above-ground condenser that would emit noise 24/7. Little or no thought seems to have been given to the plight of nearby residents who would be expected to endure noise, vibration and dust for at least a year. He welcomed a growing recognition of the hardship experienced by ordinary residents, who more and more find themselves in the frontline of such works, but of course we are not there yet.

By no means is it only the construction process that is a problem. In St John’s Wood, a group of my constituents objected to a huge planning application submitted by a developer to demolish an “unlisted building of merit” and then excavate under most of the garden to create a massive two-storey basement and a vast new build above that would be completely out of context with the established neo-Georgian character of the road. Not only would this proposal threaten negatively to transform the street scene and create a very unfortunate precedent, it also threatens heritage assets, namely two Georgian listed properties nearby. An objection to a scheme in Bayswater stressed issues around drainage and flood risk, with

“a whole host of related and very serious technical concerns regarding the physical impact on the neighbouring properties.”

It is extremely difficult to predict accurately how such a large and invasive excavation might affect the water table and the movement of water within the ground around a property, but it seems likely that there is at least some level of risk to the building and any neighbouring structures.

Dr Michael de Freitas, emeritus reader of engineering geology at Imperial College London, told Camden residents that those looking to install a basement often do not invest enough money in engineering expertise to ensure that the work will not cause long-term damage to neighbouring properties. This point is confirmed in a devastating report by the Health and Safety Executive earlier this year, which found that almost half the sites inspected in unannounced visits broke health and safety rules. Of those, 44 were so hazardous that the contractors were served with prohibition notices requiring immediate improvements, while two were shut down completely because of the danger posed to workers. James Hickman, the Health and Safety Executive’s leading inspector in the construction division in the City and south-west London, told the Evening Standard:

“These…figures reflect the rapidly-increasing number of companies entering the basement industry.

Those new to basement construction work are often unaware of the…technically challenging nature of the work or of the standards required to ensure the safety of their workforce.”

Of course there are responsible builders, developers and owners, but all too frequently, concerned neighbours and other residents report a lack of consideration, and company ownership structures with which they cannot deal or negotiate. The cost and complexity of challenging planning applications, especially given some of the stupendously wealthy individuals and companies involved, is far too much for most residents, so they feel largely powerless. They have looked to their local planning authorities for help, but have found in recent years that, even when there is a will to resist, the power simply is not there.

What is needed is greater local autonomy, so that councils can respond to these very local and specific problems. Westminster council has now followed Kensington and Chelsea in drawing up a new, tougher control policy, and I welcome it. Like Kensington’s, it will try to bring the monsters under control, limiting the size and depth of permitted excavations. However—and this is my main motivation for bringing the issue back to this House—local authority policies are not the final word. Well-financed developers and owners know that they can often proceed with appeals that are risky and expensive for cash-strapped local authorities. One highly controversial case in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is now being challenged in the courts, despite the council’s ruling and its adoption of a new, tougher planning policy. Westminster Council is therefore seeking an article 4 direction: a notice under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure that a democratically determined local policy is not subject to challenge as a consequence of permitted development rights. That will be a matter for the Government’s adjudication.

Local councils, and the individuals and communities whom local elected representatives are there to serve, are at the mercy of national Government decisions. Although local problems are often below the national radar, they are of major local significance. Local communities want to know that judgments on such matters can be made and enforced by their local councils. Surely councils should not have to go cap in hand to the Secretary of State for the right to set and enforce policies of this kind, in keeping with their local priorities and the wishes of their residents, and that is what my Bill proposes.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that I shall be allowed a quick point of order; I am rather new to this procedure. I should just like it to be recorded that I support the points made by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), because, as she has said, Kensington has significant problems with basement construction.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on that very imaginative and creative way of recording her support for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That Ms Karen Buck, Mark Field, Andy Slaughter, Tulip Siddiq, Ruth Cadbury, Clive Efford, Matthew Pennycook and Emily Thornberry present the Bill.

Ms Karen Buck accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January 2016 and to be printed (Bill 72).

Education and Adoption Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order 83A(9)),

That the Order of 22 June 2015 (Education and Adoption Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

(3) The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.



Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to education and amendments to clauses 1 to 12

4.45 pm

Remaining proceedings on Consideration

6.00 pm

(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00pm.—(Mr Gibb.)

Question put and agreed to.