Debating Subterranean Basement Developments

Posted: 09/11/11

Having received substantial volumes of constituency correspondence over the last few years I have become increasingly concerned about the problem of subterranean basement developments.

However, it was not until I accepted an invitation to see one of the larger basement developments in NW8 a couple of weeks ago that it hit home to me just what an extraordinary change we are seeing in some of our inner-city communities.

I saw a basement excavation stretching between Hamilton terrace and the mews behind it in St John's Wood. It seemed that the excavation was the size of an aircraft carrier-absolutely vast. It was far greater in scale than I had expected. Not only was this enormous excavation going on, but lorries that were turning into the mews to take away the soil were pounding away. There was noise and filth in the air. The small mews was already buckled by the pressure of the lorries coming into the street, which was not designed for the kind of traffic that was being imposed on it. It was vividly brought home to me how disruptive such basement developments are. They are an imposition on many residents in areas where they have become such a striking phenomenon over the past couple of years.

That is why I called for an adjournment debate on the issue in Westminster Hall on Tuesday. You can find the full text of that debate by clicking on the following link:

http://bit.ly/uUeLhW  

We all know that building works are a hazard of urban living. We live in a growing city. Wherever we live in London or other cities, at some stage we are likely to experience building works. It is right that we must endure some of this as our infrastructure is updated and as much-needed new housing development is fitted into our growing cities. However, if we look at some of the plans for basement developments that are now spreading all over inner London, we are not talking about infrastructure development or new house building. In many cases, basement developments-sometimes double basements going down two levels-stretch not just under the footprint of the house or even one or two thirds beyond the footprint of the building itself, but through an entire garden. Plans include underground cinemas, swimming pools, gymnasiums and gun rooms. Delightful as that may be for resident's fortunate enough to live in such properties; it is hard to accuse those who object of restricting the necessary growth and infrastructure development of our city.

Westminster city council-the authority with which I am concerned, although I know that other inner-London authorities deal with similar issues-states in its policy guidance:

"The environmental impact of subterranean development also has potential to be significant and result in increased carbon emissions, due to additional requirements for lighting, ventilation and pumps. By limiting the extent of basement developments and requiring them to meet sustainable design standards, negative environmental impacts may be reduced."

We know, however, that due to a degree of uncertainty about current planning guidance, some local authorities-Westminster in this case-are anxious about their ability to block developments.

In the debate I sought clarification of what options are available to local authorities and challenged the Minister to consider providing stronger and clearer guidance to the small number of inner-London authorities where almost all such developments are taking place:

http://bit.ly/uUeLhW  

This is not nimbyism or an objection to new infrastructure or housing developments-indeed, the St John's Wood Society played a constructive role in the future development of the King's Troop barracks. It is, however, a response to a real and worsening problem that was probably unforeseeable only a few short years ago. Like Chelsea and Bayswater, St John's Wood may be a largely prosperous area, but its residents have the same right as anyone else to be protected from unacceptable levels of noise, nuisance and disruption that prevent them from the quiet enjoyment of their homes. We have a shared interest in protecting the urban environment and the character of our residential neighbourhoods, which contribute to making London the city that we love so much.