Westminster Council has adopted new, tighter rules on basement development that will restrict the growth of mega-basements in the borough. The rules have been introduced as part of a range of revisions to the borough’s City Plan, which specifically cover basements and mixed use developments.
Basement extensions will, as a result, need to be smaller in scale, with a stronger set of regulations around their design and construction. Specifically, Westminster will not allow basements that extend under more than 50% of a garden, and new structures may not go more than one storey below the lowest original floor level.
Rows over large basement structures continue to rage, with one recent issue in the news in Connaught Square, Westminster. There, banker Mubashir Mukadam is reported to have submitted revised plans to install a swimming pool in the basement of his Georgian home. Original proposals first submitted in 2012 including a pool, jacuzzi, sauna and cinema were turned down, and a revised scheme has now won approval – prompting many complaints from other local residents.
Objecting to the proposal, Nick Johnson, chair of the Hyde Park Association, commented: “This application is just a shocking and alarming example of the increasing trend to overdevelop these wonderful Georgian homes. Connaught Square is properly regarded as one of the most significant and historically important in London, with an amazing local and national history and importance.
‘If the applicant wants a home with a swimming pool, then he needs to buy a bigger plot in an area where the land and local planning environment would not be so badly and deleteriously affected.’
And in Kensington & Chelsea, where basement regulations have also been tightened, battle continues between neighbours the French Embassy and Jon Hunt, founder of Foxtons estate agents. Hunt angered the embassy, and others living locally, by proposing a massive four level, 16,800 sq ft basement, which won consent in 2008.
The embassy argued against a more recent revised scheme, reducing the project in scale to two floors; their submission included assertions that the changes could breach the Vienna Convention, while the disruption could upset the receiving of heads of state and hosting of important events. The council turned the project down, arguing the scale was inappropriately large, and did not meet new basement policies. Lawyers for the embassy told the London Standard they now plan to argue the 2008 permission – which still stands and could be executed – is invalid on the grounds of being outdated.
Similarly to Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea policy restricts basements to no more than half of a garden, with an expectation that they will be of no more than a single storey.
Westminster started clamping down on basement extensions in summer 2015, when it used an article 4 direction to require all basement extensions to require permission. At the time, councillor Robert Davis commented: “All basements will now go before the council’s planning department, allowing neighbours and local communities to have their say and for developers to demonstrate they will not cause undue harm to neighbours or the character of the area.”
LPA Perspective: Planning restrictions and fiscal regulations have collided to make the construction of basements a booming business in London. If it’s hard to build out or up, then building owners have understandably explored digging dow. And, with stamp duty on London homes substantially increased by chancellor Osborne, the cost of moving house has increased to a point where digging a basement is a more economic option than moving to a nearby larger home – assuming one can be found.
The problem is, digging down inevitably involves more construction work, and more risk of damage to nearby trees and neighbouring properties. There are other inherent problems: as most basements are below the water table, then water pressure is a problem, while artificial ventilation will also be required.
However, the issue of mega basements is based perhaps less on economics – these are people who can afford largely what they want, where they want it; and in the grander avenues of central London, the rich want modern accoutrements fitted within their historic exteriors.
London boroughs have reacted somewhat slowly to the problem, in declaring new policies. But with Westminster now joining its neighbours in putting a clear cap on the scale of future excavations.