Hail infernal world
Here is an open letter to the planning committee of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea:
Chepstow Crescent is a short, quiet, leafy street in a conservation area in Notting Hill. Not many more than a dozen of the original Victorian terraced houses remain in single occupation. Of modest construction and limited scale, seven have changed hands within the last eighteen months, at prices driven by Government policies that many consider unsustainable. New owners invariably embark on costly and extensive refurbishment (even when the properties they buy have already been rebuilt by the vendors prior to sale). In order to justify their purchases, they seek to expand the space, mostly by excavating huge basements.
This is a blight on central London. Welcome though it is, Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s bill may paradoxically have encouraged owners to apply for basement consent before any new rules bite. Two applications are currently before you, and I ask you to consider my objections in this letter in relation to both – and the others that will doubtless follow.
Each of these developments brings untold misery to adjoining owners, and an increase in the risks to all properties in the area. You and the Council’s planning staff repeatedly argue that objections based on hardship caused by noise and damage to adjoining property are “not planning considerations”. You tell adjoining owners that they are protected by party wall legislation, even though you know that the Party Wall etc. Act legalises trespass and damage that would otherwise be injunctable, and you know that adjoining owners cannot under the act recover the loss of amenity imposed upon them by their neighbours’ developments. Such encroachments weigh heaviest on residents who have lived here longest, who work from home, who have possessions that cannot easily be moved or who have retired and cannot easily afford to move.
When a single property is refurbished in a street the temporary misfortune of two adjoining owners may be balanced by the rights of the incoming developer, and you may feel that the Council’s development policies set that balance fairly. But when residents are permanently surrounded on all sides by virtually continuous building work in a small street, this ceases to be a matter of private pain and becomes a misfortune suffered by a community which it is your job as our elected representatives to prevent.
You are not doing that job effectively. You and the Council staff are frightened about applying Council policies in case applicants appeal and you have to meet their legal costs. I think you need to run that risk occasionally in order to protect our environment.
And it is entirely within your powers under current law to do so effectively.
The particular issue that arises with basements is the potential for damage to the environment.
Applicants are supposed to demonstrate that these risks have been addressed. This is currently done by the production of environmental reports. I have examined a number of these. They are prepared by firms whose fees are paid by applicants and who therefore have every incentive to ensure that the points scrape through the 58% test the Council has established – even though this is achieved by screwing filters on shower heads that will be removed the moment the inspector has left. These reports do not in any serious way engage with the fundamental risks to our environment: water tables, subsidence and soil types are all extremely complicated issues which cannot be left to applicants’ advisers. What should have been a serious exercise in protecting your community from the grave and real consequences of over-development has become a childish exercise in box-ticking in which each of you can pretend that you have done your job.
You have not. Each time you permit another basement to be excavated, on whatever pretence, you have sanctioned damage to our community’s environment. You have permitted the destruction of amenity. And you have contributed to the vicious circle of rising house prices that induce owners to behave in this way.
Postscript, 18 May
Despite getting a number of replies from councillors telling me in effect that there was nothing they could do, as their hands were tied by the legal framework and Government policy that favours the economic “benefits” of development over the understandable concerns of the neighbours, the first of the two planning applications was rejected (by the narrowest majority) at the recent meeting, against the recommendation of staff (but in keeping with the views of all 17 neighbours who responded to the consultation, unanimously opposed to the application). The decision was that
The application has failed to demonstrate that the structural stability of adjacent properties would be adequately safeguarded. In consequence, the proposed basement would not satisfy Policy CL2 of the Core Strategy or the Supplementary Planning Document regarding subterranean development adopted in 2009.
The requirement in CL2 is to
resist subterranean developments where: … c. the structural stability of adjoining or adjacent listed buildings or unlisted buildings within conservation areas might be put at risk…
“Might” is a broad word, and interpreted strictly would seem to preclude almost all basement developments. No doubt this sensible interpretation will be challenged on appeal, if not on this, then later.