Monday 16 January 2017

Wrecking Ball, or - Mrs Angry's Basement Tapes: building enforcement in the age of 'Re' - the Barnet Tory-Crapita Joint Venture

Looking from a neighbouring house to the Vivian Avenue basement excavation, where the land has collapsed, after basement excavations - and the demolition of a property with planning approval only: but why was work continuing?

In December, I wrote a post about what is fast becoming a very serious issue, here in Broken Barnet: the lack of enforcement of breaches in planning approval. Focusing on two recent and apparently unauthorised demolitions in Hendon, a house in Vivian Avenue, and the former White Bear pub in the Burroughs, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong in the scrutiny and management of such developments.

Work on the White Bear was ceased after a Stop Notice was issued by Barnet Council - after public outcry and protests by residents, but also when it was too late, and the whole building was already a pile bricks and mud. That this historic building, part of a conservation area, is lost forever is an absolute scandal, and we can only wonder what sort of eyesore might replace it. Why did officers allow plans that councillors on the planning committee had originally rejected to be modified, and move so close to full demolition that - oh dear, as the work commenced, the remaining part 'fell down'? 

Who will be held accountable? 

No one.

The other property demolished was a house in a nice residential road, being developed by the same family who have tried to demolish the Lodge in Victoria Park, and replace it with a block of flats. Only a concerted campaign by residents has prevented this from being approved - so far.

The house in Vivian Avenue was left with the remains of one wall, alleged by some to be used as argument that the property had not been demolished. But that wall has now gone too - so what is the council doing about it? 

Work continues on the site, and - oh, a new application was received last week, published on the council's planning website, for a demolition and a new build. Which is already happening.

Yes, after the developers had already knocked the property down, in defiance of the limited approval for extensions and a basement in regard to the house that had been there. Is there any action to hold them to account for what they are doing? 

We don't know, because there has been no contact from any officer with the neighbouring household since the 18th November. Extraordinary, isn't it?

*Update: just heard that someone from building control came today, 16th January -  at last - but the council and Chief Executive were informed on the 13th, so it is lucky no further subsidence or collapse has taken place over the weekend: and where have they been in the weeks previous since the demolition?

But there is worse.

On Friday morning the owners of a neighbouring property discovered that, to their great shock, there had been a collapse of land overnight on the boundary of their property, with the fence and fence posts disappearing onto the basement excavation, exposing the ground under the patio steps - and destroying the lawn they had laid only last summer. 

More worrying still now is the very real possibility that their house may now be at risk of structural damage, or - even worse - collapse. 

Looking towards the houses, with the depth of excavation and collected rain water clearly visible

This is not an unreasonable fear: not so long ago, due to reckless excavations by builders for a basement made under a house in Finchley,  cracks in the property suddenly appeared, and then it began to collapse, with very little warning - residents and neighbours managed to escape from the affected buildings without harm, but only by good fortune. The property had to be demolished. The collapse happened, as in the case of Vivian Avenue, after a sustained period of rain. 

(One of the neighbouring houses affected, incidentally, as you can just about make out in some photos still has the name painted above the door, from the 1930s, of Tants, the Finchley builders, once owned by my uncle Jack - who would no doubt have been aghast at the sight of such botched work).

As this article on the Finchley story ( a report written by a surveyor) makes clear, the consequences of excavating basement developments, should things go wrong, can be 'catastrophic' - even fatal - and as the writer observes - 'They can also be ruinously expensive'. The company involved in this case went into liquidation, and the residents affected have lost everything.

Collapsing house in Finchley      Pic credit: Times group

At the weekend local Labour councillors contacted the Chief Executive to demand answers as to what - if anything - the Capita run planning and enforcement team was doing about the Vivian Avenue site. Interesting that the White Bear, in a Tory ward, surrounded by a group of middle class residents united in fury, had a Stop Notice slapped on it, whereas the other demolition appears to have been overlooked, and work - potentially putting neighbouring property at risk - has been allowed to continue. Why?

Data regarding the number of cases of breaches dealt with by enforcement officers working for Capita-Barnet was recently released in response to an enquiry by a Tory councillor, revealing the astonishing fact that nearly 80% of cases end in 'no further action'. Yet a recent Freedom of Information request to Labour run Ealing council, which is a fair comparison to Barnet, suggests that their rate is closer to 50%. 

Mrs Angry is awaiting more data from other authorities, but if this is typical, one might begin to ask why 'Re', Barnet's joint venture with Capita, is performing so badly. Is it a failure to allocate adequate resources to planning and building control? Is it incompetence? Or is it a deliberate policy of laissez faire, in order to cut the 'red tape' - safeguards - that Barnet Tories - many of them landlords - feel restricts the poor developers, trying to screw enough profit out of their demolition of the build heritage of Broken Barnet?

Whatever the truth, it won't make any difference to the Tory councillors, (unless someone knocks down the house next door to them), just about to assess the Re contract, because nothing would make them admit that the contract they so eagerly approved was a waste of time and money: but one may live in hope that the Labour opposition might hold Capita to account for its poor performance.

Yes: Mrs Angry, eternal optimist.


I Live On Vivian Avenue said...

Since the last wall was removed in December 2016, new walls have been built and deep excavations have taken place. Multiple beams have been inserted into the ground and tons of concrete have been poured as piling machinery and men worked relentlessly on despite the fact that no planning approval exists any more for the site.How do you extend and convert when not one bit of the original house remains?

It is disgraceful that enforcement did not stop the works until it could be verified that any development was allowed. This development has been approached in a totally unsatisfactory manner. What is the point of a planning and building control department when it cannot regulate what developers can or cannot do? The most obvious reason for a stop notice would be that whatever is being built might be dangerous if it has not been approved.

With the pavement works being carried out by the council and the big machinery and delivery trucks that are turning up at the site regularly, pedestrians and motorists have had a terrible time in the last 2 months.

The workers are not wearing appropriate footwear for a construction site, there is mud and mess on the pavement daily and now a land collapse!!

Is the development company,CDEG Ltd, building with with competent contractors? The poor neighbours!

This is absolutely unacceptable. Who pays for all this extra inconvenience and stress? If work is being carried out, then surely someone from building control must be documenting and signing off stages of work against plans submitted to the relevant department.Oh wait.. there are no plans or at least the plans submitted are for a different application where a house is still standing.

Mrs Angry said...

All reasonable questions to put to the council, I would say, and whatever other appropriate bodies there may be. It really is very worrying that there appears to be no effective scrutiny of building work in this borough now. This puts residents and property at risk, as well potentially as workers on building sites, and is simply not acceptable in terms of contract performance from a privatised service.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't hold my breath about the council changing planning arrangements, since they are "bulldozing" ahead with their plans to reconfigure Barnet's library buildings. For example, Chipping Barnet's library has been closed for building works for the last few weeks, even though the planning meeting to approve those works takes place this evening, l7th January.

Also, on the topic of libraries, I responded to the document sent out in regard to the changes of opening hours at Burnt Oak, and attach here a copy of my email to my councillors.

Dear Councillors,

Recently, Barnet's councillors asked borough residents to comment on the plans to change library buildings, part of the current restructuring process which means many library staff will lose their jobs. Responding to what they say is a need for libraries to be open in some cases between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., the council have begun to install an automated system accessible to library card holders, so that some libraries can be used when unstaffed.

I objected to the new proposed opening hours for Burnt Oak library, citing Saturdays, where the hours were listed as between 2 and 5 p.m, thus cutting out the entire morning, which is in many cases the only time people can visit the library. Yesterday I read the reply to my objection in the report that was sent out. This is what it said:

"The opening hours proposed are set out within paragraph 4.6 of this report. The opening hours show that there would be an increase in the opening hours of the library, albeit with a reduction in hours that the library is staffed."

There is no paragraph 4.6 in the report. There is however a section marked 3.6 which simply represents a chart showing the staffed and unstaffed proposed opening hours. Not only does this chart differ from the large noticeboard in Burnt Oak library, for example, the chart shows weekday mornings as beginning at 7 a.m. and the noticeboard reads 9 a.m., but in addition, someone - presumably a council employee - has pasted what looks like a piece of grey tape over the section for Saturday morning. According to the chart AND the board "grey" means "closed."

So I could be charitable and make allowances for a mistake in the numbering in the report, or even a mistake in the communication process that led to the discrepancies between the board in the library and the documents that were produced. But it's a bit harder to accept the cold dismissal of my objection and its implication that I didn't read the proposal properly. I did.

I think any proposals to change the opening hours of Burnt Oak library should be shelved and planning permission denied, until these changes are outlined with clarity and accuracy. I would be pleased to learn that you support my views and to that end make representations to that effect at the planning meeting scheduled for 17th January.

Mrs Angry said...

You are right, Anon, to draw attention to the fact that despite approval only - presumably - being given last night, work has been taking place in library buildings. We can only speculate why this is so. But the whole nature of consultation in Barnet is a sham, as the current Tory administration & their officers have nothing but contempt for the wishes of residents, except in the case of a threat to being re-elected in a marginal ward.

I will be writing about the library destruction soon, if I have the energy, as there are clear signs of a change in the council's stated proposals and what will actually be happening, or potentially happening once the physical assault takes place.