Second Reading

Part of Subterranean Development Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 11:03 am on 10th February 2012.

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Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative 11:03 am, 10th February 2012

My Lords, I am lucky enough to live in quite a smart street in London. In fact, it is so smart that even the noble Lord, Lord Myners, has a house in it. There the similarity between us ends because he has a large house and I have a small basement flat. I have been encouraged by my neighbours to speak on the Bill because we have had what one could describe as a subterranean problem.

One of the difficulties of living in what one might call a smart street relates to houses such as the one opposite me that has been bought by a foreign couple. I am told that they are Russian, but I have absolutely no proof of that. Apparently, when Russians buy houses in London, the one thing they really enjoy is digging down-I am not entirely sure why. Anyway, the builders appeared and they dug and they dug. In our street, the basement goes under not only the pavement but the street. I have no idea how far they dug, but the result was that both houses on either side virtually collapsed into the hole, causing enormous inconvenience. The neighbours were virtually powerless to do anything about it, and that is the issue that has been brought up by my noble friend Lord Selsdon and why this is important. The result on our street was that the pavement has been blocked and a number of skips have been sitting outside the house for more than two years. Workmen come and go but nothing seems to happen. I understand that this happens in quite a number of streets in London.

I am not against all forms of development. Indeed, my flat originally included what must have been the coal bunker that went under the street. It is a useful place for storage and I am delighted to have it. However, development must be regulated and it is an issue that affects not only London but outside, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said. While I am referring to London, I should say that I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is to respond to the debate because her experience in local government, particularly in Kensington and Chelsea, will enormously useful.

My noble friend Lord Selsdon said that basement development was often for building garages. However, the Bill refers to additional accommodation. I do not know whether that covers a garage, but perhaps he can tell us when he responds. Equally, I am unclear how far one can dig down without needing planning permission, or how much further one can go. I understand that in a number of developments in London enormous spaces have been excavated, lifts have been installed and the developments go down three or four floors. That would involve digging rather more than the three or four metres suggested by my noble friend.

The real issue here is liability and the nuisance to neighbours. In London we have complicated arrangements. Some houses are owned by freeholders, some are leasehold and have landlords, and the particular issue in our street is that the liability seems to fall somewhere between the landlord, the leaseholder and various people in between. No one is clear who is responsible and accountable. If such developments are to continue, part of this process must involve an adequate and watertight insurance policy whereby neighbours can get some form of compensation should disaster strike. It is clear that the further down you dig, the larger the risk. These accidents often happen entirely unintentionally and it is not necessarily the fault of the builder, the architect or anyone else. You dig down and you do not know what you will find. There ought to be some way of making sure that when the holes are dug not everyone "does a runner", leaving no one responsible for tidying up the mess. Some form of insurance or similar provision is vital, and I hope that my noble friend will address that issue.

I am making only a brief contribution, and I have been prompted to do so by my neighbours, so I have no interest to declare. However, this is an important issue and I am delighted that my noble friend has introduced the Bill.