• Sub squad clamps down on basements

Westminster council has launched its “subterranean squad”, to monitor basement construction in the borough. The move will include a new levy on developments, to pay for the service.
The sub squad will concentrate on ensuring that planning permissions and conditions are adequately enforced, acting alongside building control and planning functions. Its services will be charged based on hourly rates, with Westminster estimating an £8,000 bill for the average residential basement, rising to £30,000 for a large subterranean extension.
The move is in addition to a recent tightening of planning guidance in the borough, which seeks to restrict the scale of basement extensions, limiting their depth and coverage of plots.
“We are sticking up for local residents, many of whom have found the explosion of basement development in recent years hellish,” said councillor Robert Davis, MBE DL, Westminster’s deputy leader and cabinet member for the built environment. “It is right that those who want to build basements should contribute to this new service, which will work to help mitigate the negative impacts.”
“Westminster City Council supports the right kind of growth and is not against all basement development, but they must be carried out in a way that is considerate to local residents and the environment.”
The sub squad’s levy will be administered as part of the borough’s new code of construction practice, which is being rolled out. The specialist team will specifically check to ensure that deliveries are co-ordinated to reduce impacts on neighbours, and check that consultation with neighbours is happening as it should. Strict enforcement is promised to ensure working hour limits are kept to, with powers to stop sites that are breaching noise nuisance conditions. There will also be direct policing of development sites with more than 10 homes, or more than 1,000 sq m of commercial space.
The council has also said it will monitor activity across the borough, so that streets are not hampered by having too many projects happening at once in a single area.
The new conditions apply to basements granted permission from August, and to all major developments from this month.
Westminster says it has been averaging 150 basement applications a year across the borough, and also noted a move towards more and more larger “iceberg” basements looking to add two or more subterranean levels. Its recently implemented planning guidance restricts basements to a single storey, and no more than 50% of the area of a home’s garden.
The new squad has received a mixed response. Nick Johnson, chairman of the Hyde Park Estate Association, told the Standard his group “is very pleased to see the council taking a tough stance on this plague of antisocial basement development. We take a simple view. If you need a bigger house you should buy one which is big enough in the first place and not ruin the quiet enjoyment of those people who are forced to live next to subterranean tunnelling for years on end. We would indeed prefer to see them banned altogether.”
However, Nick de Lotbiniere of Savills’ planning team queried the cost: ”I can understand their reasons for doing it, but £8000 a basement seems quite a lot of money. Are they really going to spend £8000 on monitering a particular basement, I would have thought the cost would be £2000 to £3000 maximum.”

LPA Perspective: Westminster’s recent clampdown on large basement proposals solved one half of the problem. This new squad promises to deal with the other issue – and for many neighbours the bigger problem – of the disruption such building projects cause.
Former City planning director Peter Rees was fond of declaring the noise and nuisance of construction work as being “not a planning matter” – and to be dealt with by condition. In contrast, a recent permission granted by Kensington & Chelsea for a block of apartments near Harrods was chock full of concerns about the neighbours, during construction. Equally, conditions can easily be flouted, and local boroughs can be very flat footed in dealing with any contraventions.
Here’s hoping the new sub squad will race around Westminster keeping the builders in check – and that it becomes a model other boroughs will want to learn from.

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