Karen Buck

Working tirelessly for Westminster North

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Karen’s article for the SEBRA Newsletter

Time to curb the monster basements

Bayswater and Lancaster Gate have long been 'sought-after' neighbourhoods- attractive, safe and convenient. Long may that continue. But the desirability of addresses within these localities has some downsides. Central London property has become what is sometimes described as a 'global reserve currency', meaning it is a safe way to invest some of the world's wealth. One of the consequences of this trend has been overseas investment in property which is then subject to re-development, sometimes to the point of total reconstruction. Sometimes, these properties are not even occupied. Other times, they are added to the stock of private rented homes, with their rapid turnover of residents.

The rash of monster basement excavations that have plagued residents across Westminster and Kensington owe much to this trend, leading to headlines like this recent one from FT.com: "Basement excavations boom as London house prices soar. The trend for "digdowns" is spreading across west London as soaring house prices prompt homeowners and developers to increase their home's value by extending it downwards"

Basement excavations can be a useful way of expanding living space without having to move, and areas like Bayswater and Lancaster Gate have long been international in character, so this is not an argument against the principles of home improvement nor of foreign investment. Yet the sheer scale and nuisance associated with many of these basement developments has reached unimagined proportions and the time has come to put a stop to it. To give a local example, I was contacted about one basement development near to Bayswater Station of which it was said:


" There is a proposal for one basement development...to use Bark Place and Moscow Road as the thoroughfare for the construction lorries,,,. In addition, there will be two other simultaneous basement developments happening on Caroline Place..

It is estimated that the works will take up to 2 years and that there could be up to 18 lorries per day using this route, weighing up to 30 tonnes and that's just for the one development!

The junction at that corner is very narrow and the turning is very 'blind' and it is inevitable that this will lead to gridlock. I am concerned about the possible dangers caused by the weight, their frequency, the vibration...

Residents and businesses on Bark Place, Orme Court, Moscow Road and Caroline Place are extremely concerned about the stresses and strains that will undoubtedly affect the infrastructure of our streets,

No wonder residents are concerned!

I welcome the new rules being put forward by Westminster Council. These will set limits of the size and depth of basement excavations. However, I am only too aware of the problems Kensington Council has already run into with their planning proposals, and while Westminster may have learned some lessons from this, my fear is that well-funded developers will be able to challenge the Council in the courts where permission is refused in line with local planning guidelines

This is why I introduced a short Parliamentary Bill before Christmas, proposing the amend the law on 'Permitted Developments', to give legal backing to Councils that want to resist monster excavations. I also think Councils should be able to consider the impact of multiple schemes in the same way they can for licensed premises.

Although this specific Bill is unlikely to proceed for lack of Parliamentary time, I will continue to push this with Ministers and welcome resident's views and comments.

If anyone would like a copy of my speech and the associated press coverage, do feel free to contact me.

Priced out- London's housing crisis

Meanwhile, as London property prices surge, Londoners are ever more concerned about housing pressures- the cost of renting, how to get on the property ladder, where their children and grand-children are going to live. I have written before about my concerns that Westminster does not make sure developers include a reasonable proportion of affordable homes to rent and buy within new schemes seeking planning approval. This has been reliably estimated to have lost £31 million worth of contributions to affordable housing. Yet even with a record £100 million in the Council's Affordable Housing Fund, it still seems almost impossible to get affordable homes built. The Council hasn't even replaced the stock of homes sold under Right to Buy.

There are many consequences of this failure. Lower and middle income earners struggle to afford homes near where they work- including, of course, those people who are essential to the economy and public services. And Westminster's legal duty towards homelessness households (which is not, contrary to myth, the worst in London) means that the shortage of homes costs a fortune. A recent Freedom of Information request to the Council found the homelessness has cost Westminster £111 MILLION since 2010.

Feeling the pinch

A deeper crunch is coming for the Council as Westminster has to cut another £100m from the budget. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most recent "Westminster Reputation Tracker' survey showed a fall in satisfaction to the lowest level they have recorded, as pressures intensify. The poll said:

"Residents across a range of backgrounds are experiencing economic difficulties and this is impacting on how they live their lives and how they perceive the council. Three in ten (30%) think their financial situation has got worse in the last 12 months, and 39% of them think it will continue to get worse. The majority (54%) of Westminster residents are worried they will suffer directly from spending on public services over the next 2-3 years. Concerns are across all social grades but in particular those who are on middle or lower incomes, parents and those in social housing. Those unsettled by the economic situation are less likely to be sure about the service they receive from the council."

Crime continues its long fall

Good news on the crime front, however, as the long decline in offending continues. Bayswater and Lancaster Gate wards have both seen declines year-on-year of other a third, which is excellent. However, this doesn't mean we are crime-free by any means, with concerns about anti-social behaviour in particular reaching me more quite regularly (hostels and hotels are the main focus), and I liaise with both the police and Council in response to them.

Police numbers has also continued to fall in the recent past, with Westminster now having 397 fewer police officers and 384 fewer PCSOs now compared with 2010.

Hallfield estate- the Major Works debacle goes on.

The renovation of the regarded, listed Hallfield descended into farce at the beginning of the year, when the contract with the building company, Mulalley's, was suspended.

A report to the Council said:

"External repairs and window replacements have been underway on the Hallfield Estate since May 2012 but progress has been exceedingly slow. Whereas completion of works to all 14 blocks was originally expected to take 127 weeks, works are only partially complete to 3 blocks after 85 weeks. Residents have regularly complained about the quality of work."

Problems emerged from the off. Listed building consent was refused for kitchen and bathroom windows; Electrical conduits buried in cement were failing earthing tests; new floors were short of specification and there was a failure to commit to proper manning levels to fulfil tasks.

After years of planning and consultation, and more than two years on site, residents are (almost) back to square one. What a shambles. Tenants and leaseholders have a right to be furious, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Mulalley's decision!

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