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Building Regulations (External Retaining and Load-Bearing Walls)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 5th February 2013.

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Photo of Stephen Mosley Stephen Mosley Conservative, City of Chester 12:33 pm, 5th February 2013

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Building Regulations (2010) to include regulation of external retaining and load-bearing walls;
and for connected purposes.

On 26 July 2008, the lives of my constituents, Peter and Lindsay Burgess, were changed for ever. At the time, the Burgess’s were living in Meliden, in Denbighshire, in the constituency of Chris Ruane, who is in his place. Mrs Burgess, accompanied by her three-year-old daughter Meg and 18-month-old son Wilson, had been for a walk to the local shop.

On the way home, while Mrs Burgess pushed Wilson in his pram, her daughter, Meg, followed a few steps behind. With no warning, a 72-foot-long section of wall collapsed, spilling tonnes of rubble, breeze-blocks and earth over the pavement and burying Meg. Mrs Burgess screamed, pulled at the rubble with her hands and tried to pull Meg out, but unfortunately Meg was declared dead 10 minutes after arriving at Glan Clwyd hospital in nearby Bodelwyddan. Tragically, Meg was crushed to death as a 5-feet 2-inch wall fell on top of her. The 72-foot-long wall was built of 9-inch breeze-blocks right next to the pavement, and fell pretty much in one piece under the weight of 26 tonnes of rubble piled up behind it.

This was not a typical garden wall; it was a large-scale engineering project, but the materials used to build it were not adequate for its purpose. The wall had not been properly anchored into the ground, no measures had been taken to protect pedestrians walking along the pavement, and it collapsed just moments after it had been backfilled. The builder, George Collier, was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence at Mold Crown court in October and was given a two-year jail sentence. Officially, justice has been done, but Meg should never have been killed in the first place, because the wall should have been built safely.

The pain and anguish that Mr and Mrs Burgess have dealt with these past four years are unimaginable to everyone in the Chamber, yet they have carried themselves with incredible dignity and strength, and now that they have achieved justice for Meg, they are determined that no one else should have to go through what they have been through. That is why they have set up Meg’s campaign, which seeks to license the domestic building trade in the UK and to bring free-standing, load-bearing and retaining walls within the scope of building regulations. Today’s motion seeks to address one part of Meg’s campaign, and I hope that it finds favour on both sides of the House.

Meg is not the only person to have been killed or injured by a collapsing wall. The exact numbers are difficult to quantify, but a written parliamentary question I asked last year revealed that, on average over 10 years, more than 1,000 injuries a year were caused by the collapse or partial collapse of exterior walls. Significant numbers of people are injured every year, yet changes to building regulations have not been forthcoming.

On behalf of Mr and Mrs Burgess, I would like to express gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr Foster, for meeting us in December to discuss the intricacies of Meg’s campaign and to thank him for the promises he made and for his commitment to ensure that local authorities are fully aware of their current responsibilities in relation to dangerous structures.

Nevertheless, more needs to be done. As things stand, retaining and load-bearing walls are not covered by building regulations. There are centrally available guidelines about how a retaining wall should be built, but sadly they are not always adhered to. A Department for Communities and Local Government consultation document published in January 2012 revealed that more than 50% of small builders surveyed did not follow any form of official guidance for building walls.

The fact is, Mr Speaker, that you and I could go out this afternoon, watch a video on YouTube, erect a 5-foot wall and pile up tonnes of rubble behind it, and there would be no obligation on us to seek official guidance or consult experienced structural engineers and building control would not need to inspect our work. In Meg’s case, despite the builder’s 30 years of experience in the groundworking trade, he chose to cut corners and build a wall without the structural integrity required to retain the weight he planned to pile against it. Had the builder followed the guidelines, Meg would still be alive today.

That is the crux of the issue. Although the builder clearly did not follow construction guidelines, at no point did anyone check whether he had done so. Had retaining walls been included in building regulations, the property owner would have had to submit plans for the wall to the local authority for approval and to indicate its purpose as a retaining wall, the design would have had to incorporate the additional strengthening measures required for it to carry weight and the work would have had to be inspected before any earth was piled against it. Any building inspector would have instantly seen that the proposals for the wall were not up to scratch and that it would be unlikely to support its own weight, let alone the weight of rubble and earth piled up behind it. Any building inspector would have been able to see that the wall was not strong enough. No earth would have been piled up behind the wall, and Meg would still be alive today. Instead, Mr Collier thought he could get away with saving a few hundred pounds on materials, and a few hours of labour. As a result, a young child is dead.

This motion would enable a Bill to come before the House to bring retaining and load-bearing walls within building regulations. This is a simple, straightforward proposal for which other countries across the world have seen fit to legislate. In Australia, for example, any retaining wall over 1 metre in height requires development approval. They have also been legislated for in a number of US states, for instance in Colorado, where any retaining wall over 3 feet high requires a site plan to be submitted and a permit to be obtained from county planning departments. In the Republic of Ireland, planning permission is required for retaining walls over a certain height, depending on the local authority responsible.

Regulation of retaining walls is not without precedent in the UK either. Section 5 of the Hastings Borough Council Act 1988 states that

“no retaining wall shall be erected otherwise than in accordance with plans, sections and specifications approved by the Borough Council”.

Therefore, in the borough of Hastings—indeed, in the borough of Hastings alone—by Act of Parliament, anyone who wishes to erect a retaining wall over 1.5 metres in height must have their plans approved by the borough council.

Although I understand that local authorities may object on the grounds of increased work load, the Hastings Act shows how simple and straightforward it would be for them to administer such a proposal. I am totally supportive of the Government’s red tape challenge, but this is a potentially life-saving measure that could, and should, be adopted as soon as possible.

I am delighted by the huge number of hon. and right hon. Members who have chosen to pack this Chamber for this ten-minute rule Bill motion. I hope they will all join me in supporting the motion and in urging the Minister to consider carefully the merits of bringing retaining and load-bearing walls within the scope of building regulations. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Stephen Mosley, Chris Ruane, Chi Onwurah, John Stevenson, Stephen Metcalfe, Sarah Newton, Mr Alan Reid, Pamela Nash, Graham Stringer, Andrew Miller, Jim Dowd, Mike Weatherley present the Bill.

Stephen Mosley accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013 and to be printed (Bill 132).