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Half of prime London basement builds fail safety spot-checks

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A blitz on domestic basement builds in three London boroughs found half of the projects were unsafe, it has emerged

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) conducted a two-day inspection drive covering 127 sites in Hamersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster, and found 62 of the projects (49 per cent)  failed to meet required standards.

The rate was proportionally higher than that found in a 2014 probe, which resulted in 36 per cent of sites receiving enforcement notices. Inspectors ordered work to stop at two sites because conditions were so bad.

Common problems included projects lacking ‘competent temporary works engineers’ to ensure suitable propping was in place; missing basic safety measures to stop workers falling into excavations; and unguarded conveyor belts being used to remove soil.

Sky-high London property prices make the three boroughs hotspots for the controversial trend for so-called multi-level ‘mega-basements’. However the HSE told AJ that the majority of the problem sites were smaller, single-storey builds.

Inspector James Hickman said the figures from March’s crackdown reflected the ‘rapidly-increasing’ number of companies entering the basement industry to meet the current high demand.

‘Those new to basement construction work are often unaware of the risks associated with the technically challenging nature of the work or of the standards required to ensure the safety of their workforce,’ he said.

‘The overall picture is similar to other targeted inspections of basement work in London where we identified the same kind of problems relating to unsafe work at height and excavations, and poor welfare facilities.

‘That suggests the message isn’t getting through, or that there is complacency towards health and safety across this sector of the construction industry.’

Hickman added that inspectors had found examples of improved practice among some contractors previously hit with enforcement notices.

Last year, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea passed new planning guidance allowing it to limit the depth and footprint of basement excavations. As part of its case for dealing with the phenomenon it revealed that it had received 450 applications for basement extensions in 2013 alone.

Hammersmith & Fulham introduced  its own local restrictions on basement building earlier.

Westminster is considering the introduction of tougher basement-extension guidance as part of its emerging City Plan.

Previous story (AJ 11.12.2014)

Anger at plans to ban ‘mega basements’ in South Kensington

Guidelines setting limits on size of subterranean rooms a ‘dangerous precedent

Basement

Architects have reacted angrily after a planning inspector approved plans to ban multi-storey ‘mega-basements’ in an exclusive part of west London.

In October, it emerged the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea had placed about 220 planning applications in limbo while a planning inspector reviewed its proposed policy.

The decision last week means the ‘frozen’ applications for new subterranean rooms, swimming pools, and parking spaces will now starting moving through the system again – however, most are expected to be rejected.

According to Kensington & Chelsea the ‘vast majority of these cases would not comply with the new policy’.

Architect Ian Hogarth said the new guidelines setting limits on the size of basements, which were driven by residents’ anger over the inconvenience caused by basement builds coupled with a spike in applications, set a dangerous precedent.

‘Historically, neighbour disturbance has been covered by the environmental health department and has never been admissible as a valid planning issue,’ he said. ‘The decision now leaves this issue wide open, and could affect any development anywhere in the country.’

Hogarth added limiting the footprint of new basements was an ‘arbitrary’ measure that could dramatically reduce the opportunity to provide lightwells for builds at properties with small gardens.

Architect Chris Darling of Darling Associates said the planning inspector’s decision was ‘disappointing’.

He said: ‘Kensington & Chelsea is unique in combining exceptionally high density with exceptionally high land values. Kitchens, utility rooms, and gyms don’t need natural light and placing them in basements helped to retain precious above-ground space for living and bedrooms.’

Nick de Lotbiniere, a director at consultants Savills, said he believed the policy was ‘too restrictive’ and may be open to legal challenge.

‘The issue is whether construction noise and disturbance should be given so much weight,’ he said.

‘Policies designed to deal with basements could start to interfere with other forms of development.’

Ian Fergusson, associate director at consultants Turley, agreed that a challenge to the policy was possible, but said it may be hard to win.

‘The council and the inspector have been robust about their proposals, but there will be legal issues about the past two months, where there has been this uncertainty and we’ve heard of legal actions being prepared,’ he said.

The London boroughs of Camden, Islington, Richmond, and Wandsworth are understood to have been watching Kensington and Chelsea’s progress closely.

Both Hammersmith & Fulham and Merton already have basement-build policies in place.

 

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