Basement controls now the toughest in Great Britain

For more years than I care to remember, whenever I have been walking down almost any street in the borough I’ve been struck by the number of hoardings dotted everywhere.

We all know that, as the Capital grows, development comes in waves to accommodate it.  And land here is not only scarce but exceptionally expensive and with restrictions limiting how high you can build above ground, digging down has increasingly become the new norm.

In fact the number of applications our planning department received to dig down rose exponentially – from just 46 planning applications in 2001, to 450 in 2013. Not only had the number increased dramatically, so had the scale, with two and three storey basements not uncommon.

We witnessed a new phenomenon emerge, something dubbed by the media as the ‘iceberg home’ – a basement that stretches deeper below the surface than the property above.

It was a frightening trend made worse by widespread concerns that these mega-basements concerns that these mega-basements could give rise to serious noise disturbances and also threaten the structural stability of nearby buildings. Two or three being built in the same street, at the same time, often resulted in untold misery for residents.

As Leader my challenge is to support appropriate development where possible, while at the same time protecting the unique character of Kensington and Chelsea and the interests of its residents.

So, our planners were asked to pull together a sensible set of planning guidelines to introduce a sense of proportionality to basement developments.  Despite vociferous opposition from basement developers who tried to derail us at every turn, we persisted and, in December 2014, the Government’s Planning Inspector agreed that our new policies were sound.

Since January 2015 these new guidelines have been successfully judging the merit of planning applications.   Highlights include a reduction in the maximum extent basements can extend under the garden; a restriction to a single storey in most cases; an outright ban on basement developments under listed buildings and a requirement for Construction Traffic Management Plans to be submitted alongside planning applications to mitigate noise disturbance.

With the guidelines firmly in place, there remained a final loophole which needed to be closed off.  Certain homeowners have powers from central Government known as ‘permitted development rights’ which, amongst other things, gives them the right to build a basement under the footprint of their home without the need to apply for planning permission.

Therefore, in April 2015 the Council applied for something called an Article 4 Direction which would remove the permitted development rights for basement extensions.  This came into effect last month and now all basements have to go down the planning permission route and are subject to our strict rules.

It is with a certain amount of pride that I watch other local authorities use what we have done in Kensington and Chelsea as a template.  In planning terms we can legitimately call ourselves pioneers as the first council in the country to have implemented policies to control basement development. In doing so we have recognised the misery which ever more ambitious and inappropriate plans were placing on residents’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes that were never meant to be reduced to islands surrounded by building sites.