Second Reading
Subterranean Development Bill [HL]
11:15 am

Photo of Lord Northbrook

Lord Northbrook (Conservative)

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, in his introduction of this important Bill and compliment him on the thoroughness with which he has approached the issue with the support and expertise of the Pyramus & Thisbe Club. As the owner of a London flat above a row of shops and a restaurant, which I am not sure is covered by the Bill, I am thankfully not affected at the moment by the disturbance caused by basement developments, but see on many neighbouring streets the disruption they cause, with work sometimes being carried on even at night.

In preparing for Second Reading, I was interested to read the debate in the other place on 8 November, when the main speakers were Karen Black, the Labour MP for Westminster North, supported by the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, Mark Field. I shall be interested to hear other noble Lords' London experiences and to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, and the Highgate Society.

Let me make it clear that, like other speakers, I am not opposed in principle to the provision of basements below existing houses, but I am concerned about aspects of design, construction and regulation. The two members of the other place who spoke in the debates were from London constituencies. As other speakers have said, the problem appears to be particularly bad in London, but it is extending to other cities. We are dealing primarily with terraced houses. In many parts of London, they are 19th-century houses built as terraces of varying widths and with a different number of storeys. They have proved remarkably adaptable over the past century to changing household needs as well as changing tenure and household size.

The scale and speed with which such developments are spreading over inner London is a major concern for neighbourhoods. The damage to neighbours' houses and streets and pavements is uncompensated. It can become a burden on the local authority, which has responsibility for mending pavements, or it can fall on residents in the case of some adopted roads and mews. At present, the damage is not compensated in any way.

Last week's Evening Standard reported that, at last, local councils are starting to take action. On 1 February, it reported that residents seeking basement conversions in Kensington and Chelsea face tough new measures. Figures apparently reveal that there has been a fourfold increase in applications for underground building over the past few years. The Standard reports that the council is revising its rules to put an end to "basement wars". That action comes after a spate of court cases from residents unhappy with neighbours being given the go-ahead for conversions. Several different judicial review applications were recently launched against the council.

In their response to the withdrawn amendments to the then Localism Bill, the Government essentially argued that it is not the place for government to legislate on the matter of subterranean development and that local planning authorities have the powers to cope. I do not believe that that is the case; nor do the experts in industries involved with the works. Jim Cook, director for ground engineering of Buro Happold, an international engineering consultancy, said:

"More control within the industry regarding the construction of basements is welcome".

He added:

"There are a number of issues around construction of basements to dwellings, including disruption to neighbours, damage to properties, health and safety matters, and their effect on local utilities and services".

Others raised concern about the impact on the water table. Michael Coombs, senior partner at Alan Baxter, a structural and civil engineering consultancy, said:

"There are varying groundwater conditions near the surface in London which are to do with perched water and the mainly lost rivers",

mentioned by my noble friend Lord Selsdon, "which drained London's rainwater". In many areas, these underground flows continue. My noble friend's map, included in the Explanatory Notes, lists no fewer than 20 tributaries of the River Thames. They must be taken into account when new subterranean developments are being planned. Although a single basement extension may not have an effect on the local water flow, problems may be caused by the snowball effect of more landlords opting to build basement extensions. Coombs also said:

"Large basements or a continuous run of basements could cause problems by blocking the flow of underground perched water, leading to raised water levels and problems nearby".

Surely this is an area where the expertise of the Environment Agency needs to be involved.

I turn to the Bill itself. The owner of a property who intends to excavate for or construct building or engineering works to form additional accommodation for any purpose below ground level is required to submit a subterranean development application to the local planning authority. As the Explanatory Notes say, prevailing legislation has been inadequate. An article from building.co.uk appears to confirm the need for legislation. Health and safety inspectors visited 109 London sites in November 2011 in a series of raids, issuing 76 enforcement notices at 40 of these sites. London has seen two deaths in the past 12 months resulting from basement construction projects.

In my view, the Bill makes an excellent start to the problem but I venture to suggest that it does not go far enough. I should like to suggest additional issues that should be taken into account, as brought up by the Ladbroke Association survey report in 2009. The first is to provide for appropriate compensation to be paid by developers on a compulsory basis in mitigation for nuisance. Secondly, councils should be allowed to refuse planning permission where approved noise standards cannot be met. Thirdly, councils should be allowed to take into account the balance between the nuisance caused by construction in residential areas and the desirability of the development. Fourthly, legislation should allow councils to withhold or delay planning permission to ensure a decent interval between noisy developments in the same area. Fifthly, the Government should implement existing legislation on fees to allow councils to set their own planning fees to take account of the costs of, for example, the employment of independent experts where the local council does not have the expertise. Finally, as several speakers have mentioned, and almost most importantly, sufficient insurance bonds should be in place for the projects.

I welcome the legislation and the plans to strengthen the Party Wall etc. Act 1996.

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