Skip to main content

Planning Laws: Basements

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to change the planning laws regarding the excavation of basements in residential properties; and, if so, what those plans are.

My Lords, this Government consider that powers already available to local authorities are sufficient to control the planning and construction processes of basement development. Local authorities in areas affected by basement development can adopt appropriate local plan policies, and many in London have. Some authorities provide guidance on basement development to help householders and, indeed, neighbours understand the process and consents involved.

My Lords, I disagree with the Minister. Does he not agree that there is an epidemic of these basement excavations, extending from Kensington and Westminster to other boroughs? People are highly alarmed at the prospect of such excavations—on flood plains—such that they may damage neighbours’ houses, particularly when they are narrow terraced houses, and neighbours are appalled at the thought that they are going to have a year’s disruption, chaos and unpleasantness while the building work is going on, such that if it were caused by anybody else it would attract an ASBO. Surely the Government ought at least to give local authorities the power to say no in such places—not to say never, but to say no where it would be better for the interests of the local community to say no.

Of course I sympathise that many developments take place which are not just inconvenient but a nuisance to neighbours. The Government have sought to work with local authorities, such as my local authority, Merton. I believe that about 16 local authorities across London have issued supplementary planning guidance or have adapted local policies to look at this issue. There are other things, such as the Environmental Protection Act, the Building Regulations 2010 and the Party Wall etc. Act, which combined we feel provide a basis on which to look at these issues both constructively—excuse the pun—and progressively.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was my opponent when I fought the seat of Cities of London and Westminster—

But on this occasion I very much agree with him. Those of us who live in central London know that this basement business has become an absolute epidemic. It is inspiring a great deal of fear and concern in people. Whatever the Minister may say, the fact of the matter seems to be that individuals can embark on these processes, causing great distress to their neighbours, without any come-back from the local authority or anyone else. If I may say so to the Minister, I think that to those of us who live in the middle of London his reply sounds a little Panglossian.

I am glad to hear that my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, are in agreement despite their past rivalries. On this issue, policies are being adopted. For example, Kensington and Chelsea adopted a new policy at the start of this year which is ensuring that “iceberg” developments, which go down further than one storey, can no longer happen and that basements do not exceed 50% of the garden or open plan and do not add more floors beyond implemented planning permission. Kensington and Chelsea has brought in a range of policies and other local authorities are looking at that. It is right that local authorities take forward what they see as best for their area.

My Lords, we know that currently some basements can be built under permitted development rights, which can be removed through an Article 4 direction so that a planning application would be necessary. However, in those circumstances no planning fee can be levied by the local planning authority as a consequence of the work that it has to undertake. That may not be a problem for the richer boroughs, such as Kensington and Chelsea, but it is a real issue for some London boroughs, which have had their planning and regeneration departments decimated by cuts. Is it not time to reconsider that issue of the fee?

Again, as the noble Lord has pointed out, a local authority can make an Article 4 direction. As with all things, we are looking at this area very closely. We are seeing an evolving situation and local authorities are progressing. On the issue of the fee, I note what the noble Lord has said, and I will take that back.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned Kensington and Chelsea. Is he aware that it took that council two years to get its basement policy through the process and finally adopted as part of its local plan? As others have said, this is now becoming a critical problem in parts of London. What can his department do to speed up this process and to give support to local planning authorities, which are trying to resist inappropriate basement extensions?

I say to my noble friend, as I have already said, that we are already working closely with local authorities. Again, the Localism Act provided a further basis for those decisions to be made on a devolved basis, which is exactly what we are seeing.

Is my noble friend aware that people who live near these excavations are being awoken at 5.30 in the morning by vibration from underground?

Again, I say to my noble friend that Building Regulations prevent and can limit the time of working. When such instances occur, they should be taken up with the local authority.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that my Subterranean Development Bill passed through the House some time ago. At that time, it was determined that there was no need for more primary legislation—only regulation. It was agreed with the officials that they would produce regulations and a report. I am still waiting for that. Can the Minister tell me where that report is?

I pay tribute to my noble friend for his Private Member’s Bill in this respect. He is quite right; my understanding was certainly that guidance has been reviewed since his Bill, particularly on party wall issues. I will take back the issues he raised about not knowing whether the guidance has been issued. Certainly my understanding is that the party wall policy has been reviewed following that Bill.

My Lords, what assurance can the Minister provide that the HSE is properly resourced to carry out its inspection and enforcement role in respect of these regulations, and to ensure safe working on basement excavations?

I share the noble Baroness’s view of the important role of the HSE. Perhaps she is aware that this very week the HSE is carrying out an inspection of basement policies in two key boroughs: Kensington and Chelsea—which has already been mentioned—and Hammersmith and Fulham. The HSE has a very important role to fulfil in ensuring the safety of these developments.

My Lords, in view of the terrible disturbances that such developments have caused to neighbours, is it not time for the Government to look at some statutory compensation scheme for people who live beside them? I declare an interest as somebody who has been sitting in the middle of developments on either side of me for the past eight months and been nearly driven mad. My daughter is about to have a basement dug up next to her. Very little effort is made to enable people who are affected by these developments to have any compensation or redress.

Of course I note with great care what my noble friend has said and will take it back. It is somewhat amusing that these schemes are sometimes referred to as “subterranean development”, which sounds like the sun is shining, but for some neighbours, as I fully acknowledge, that is certainly not the case.