Basement Development

Mark made the following contributions to a debate on basement development that had been tabled by Westminster North MP, Karen Buck. Subterranean development has been a matter of great concern to Central London residents in recent years given the disruption that can follow and the damage that can occur to the local amenity.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I agree with what the hon. Lady says. The Knightsbridge Association in my constituency, among others, has made it clear that it is not opposed in principle to the provision of basements beneath existing houses, but it is concerned about aspects of the design, construction and usage. What applies in the hon. Lady’s seat similarly applies in mine. We are dealing primarily with terraced houses. As in many other parts of London, they are 19th-century houses, built as terraces of varying widths and with a number of different storeys. They have proved remarkably adaptable over the past century to changing housing needs as well as changing tenure and household size. Does the hon. Lady share my view that in recent years almost unprecedented pressure has been brought to bear, along the lines that she has pointed out, to attach a bathroom to every bedroom and find space for home cinemas and gymnasiums at subterranean levels? That can cause real problems: it is not just the soil but the disruption to which she has already alluded.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) Some solutions are in place. There is the issue of planning law, and it is vital that local authorities produce an annual public report so that we are aware how many applications for this type of development have been approved. Could one further provision be a highway licence? We must ensure that the streets function normally, so where licences have already been issued—as in the cases to which the hon. Lady referred—it should be possible to bar further works for a period of time and stop the intense disruption that has taken place. Things such as skips and builders licences should be charged for by the day, just like a parking meter. That would provide a strong incentive to minimise the disruption to people’s lives, to which the hon. Lady referred.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) Does the hon. Lady agree with the Knightsbridge Association, which wrote to me before the debate? Its view is that “provision should be made in party wall agreements for a bond to be put up by the developer or an insurance taken out to ensure that neighbours are able to obtain redress where problems are caused.” As the hon. Lady is aware, all too often, the offending party may not be a UK national, and it can be difficult for those who have lost out financially—often quite substantially—to secure the redress that they deserve.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I thank the hon. Lady for an excellent speech. She will appreciate that we work on a bipartisan basis, putting the interests of our constituents first. She did not address this issue directly, but James Wright, chairman of the Belgravia Residents Association suggested, with some validity, that basements are often developed by non-resident, non-UK taxpayers, for the benefit of a single wealthy individual and at significant cost to the environment and community, as highlighted by the hon. Lady. Furthermore, extensive damage is caused to roads, and repairs are often paid for by the taxpayer, because the developer is not accountable for that. There are also concerns about the loss of viable gardens and mature trees because of basement developments, particular those that go deeper than two storeys.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) The big concern that many of our residents have, whether this is on grounds of planning, building regulations or environmental protection, is that ultimately they are often up against an applicant who is incredibly wealthy—who has very deep pockets—and can bypass all of those. I am talking about the lack of the cumulative robustness that is required in this whole area to ensure that we do not have a David and Goliath situation between a developer wanting to drive ahead and, obviously, add great value to his property through substantial works along the lines that we have described, which are incredibly disruptive, and a local authority whose hands are tied behind its back because of what are obviously very inadequate protections or notional protections.