Devonshires Basements | An Underground Revolution – The Local Politics of Basement Construction
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An Underground Revolution – The Local Politics of Basement Construction

Everyone, I should imagine, has heard of the well-known problem of Nimbyism – the default response of local residents to developments in their area:“Not in my back yard.”
With the recent trend for constructing and expanding basements, a new and related phenomenon is beginning to take hold which can now quite literally be described as Niybysim; that is “Not in your back yard.”

It has, for instance, been widely reported that Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council is looking to ban what have been termed ‘Mega-Basements’ by which the Council appears to mean any basement more than one story deep or which would run under more than half of a property’s back yard.  This very substantial restriction on basement development has been prompted by the voluble outrage of many local residents who have complained about the noise, dust and disruption caused by the construction of such basements.

These moves follow on the back of a huge surge in the number of planning applications for basement construction or expansion in the Borough in recent years. While there were just 46 such applications in 2001 there were 182 by 2010 and by 2013 this had increased dramatically to 450.

Moreover, these were not all small scale projects involving the installation of small wine-cellars beneath people’s houses (something with which the middle class residents of the Borough could have sympathised). Instead some of these projects approached a truly gargantuan scale, there was, for instance the notorious case of the multi-millionaire Mr John Hunt who submitted an application for the construction of a basement under his house in Kensington Palace Gardens that included a tennis court and a showroom for his collection of Ferraris.

One can’t help but suspect that some of the concern about these developments has as much to do with hostility to the ‘mega-wealthy’ as with frustration with (largely invisible) ‘mega-basements,’ there being nothing like the lavish and much publicized display of opulent wealth to trigger the perennial British feeling of class-based resentment.

‘No More Excavations’

With recent protests in Hackney demanding ‘No More Excavations’ and protestors complaining about property owners who are ‘digging for profit,’ it certainly seems that there is a danger that more councils could follow in the footsteps of Kensington and Chelsea and severely restrict either the nature or number of basement developments in their areas.

Our advice for the short-term is, therefore, that if you own a property in London and are planning to build or extend a basement in the near future it would be highly advisable to make your application as soon as possible. With the politics of basements in an uncertain state, if you leave it too long you may find it very difficult to make the improvements to your property that you require.

In the long-term it seems that the rules, regulations and planning restrictions around basements are only going to grow in the years to come. Some of these developments will be sensible and much needed, for instance the Kensington and Chelsea proposals include requirements to install proper pumping systems to prevent flooding or water ingress into neighboring properties – issues with which we are becoming increasingly familiar. Other developments are likely to be less popular with property owners looking to expand and, if Kensington and Chelsea is anything to go by, may severely restrict what is the least visually intrusive and most commercially valuable form of development for properties located in the city.

It is therefore almost inevitable that basements will become an area of increasing legal complexity both at the planning stage and after, and it is in this light that our experienced team of construction lawyers can really add value. Our wide ranging experience of the broad range of legal and technical issues likely to affect basement construction means that we have the ability to foresee issues that are likely to arise and to head them off at an early stage, while helping you to navigate the increasingly dense thicket of legal rules and regulations surrounding basement projects.

By Tom Keya, Solicitor