Interview: Brian May talks Basements in Barnes and beyond


9 December 2015

Brian May
Brian May {Photo: Wandsworth Magazine – photographer not stated]

In recent years the rise in the number of basement developments across the capital has become been a source of increasing concern, and following the dramatic collapse of a six-bedroom house in Barnes last month the issue is now the talk of South West London. Sophie Farrah talks to musician Brian May about his views on the subject, and takes a look at one local campaign trying to tackle basements in Barnes.

On November 26 a multi-million pound Georgian townhouse on the edge of the River Thames in Barnes collapsed very suddenly. It had recently undergone excavation work to extend the basement; the architect’s drawings show a home cinema, gym, and ‘wine room’. Luckily no one was injured, but the historic house which proudly bore a blue plaque in honour of Ebenezer Morley, founder of the Football Association and the man responsible for writing the original rules to football, is now lost forever.

Known as ‘Iceberg’ homes (because much like an iceberg, a lot more of it can be found beneath the surface) the basement craze began in the affluent neighbourhoods of Kensington and Chelsea, where wealthy homeowners sought more space to accommodate swimming pools, banqueting halls, and even servants’ quarters.

Since then, these vast extensions have not only come under fire for the damage which they can cause to surrounding properties, businesses and to the environment, but also for the long-term effect on neighbouring residents who have to contend with noise, dirt and disruption for a minimum of 18 months. A case in Barnes, currently in progress, is approaching its fourth year of works and examples in other boroughs have lasted as long as seven years.

Before and after basement collapse"
The house collapse in Barnes before (L) and after (R). Credit: Google StreetView & The Safer Basements Campaign

This desire for more space has lead to a number of acrimonious and very public basement battles; popstar Robbie Williams had extensive plans for his home in Holland Park and consequently fell out with neighbour and Led Zeppelin rocker Jimmy Page. It was a similar situation for actor Tom Conti and footballer Thierry Henry, at their respective homes in Hampstead.

More recently and also in Hampstead, the historic AIR Studios has come under threat from a neighbouring basement application; Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer, composer of The Lion King, Gladiator and Inception fiercely has fiercely opposed the plans, as has Bond film score composer David Arnold. Another notable figure with strong views on the subject is legendary musician and Queen guitarist, Brian May. Brian lives with his wife (actress Anita Dobson) in Holland Park and has experienced first hand the effects of extensive neighbouring basement construction. He is now campaigning for basements to be banned entirely.

“I’ve suffered for about seven years now, initially from the construction of three basements on my road, but there are about to be more…” he sighs. “You might think ‘what’s a little bit of noise?’ but you’re talking about a three year period of these people making this noise six days a week! Your house isn’t safe, there’s nowhere you can get away from the noise, even with triple glazing, and you end up being angry all the time, because you’re under constant stress.”

Brian is backing the online #BanTheBasement campaign, launched by businessman Will Davies who believes that the epidemic of basement development is ruining the urban landscape, and poses too high a risk to construction workers.

“#BanTheBasement are fighting the same way that I have been fighting, and it has been a very tough fight. I will help anyone, anywhere if I can who is going through this misery, because I know what it’s like” says Brian.

“To my mind it’s irrelevant whether people have planning permission or not. Suppose there was some hoody bouncing a football against the wall of someone’s house every day for three years? It wouldn’t go on for very long before there was an Anti-Social Behaviour Order on him, and he would eventually be put away. These neighbours (who are building basements) are doing worse than that – they have no regard for the fact that they are destroying people’s lives every day.”

Due to rapid house price inflation, basement development has now become an issue for all boroughs across the capital including Richmond Upon Thames, where many residents are becoming increasingly alarmed by the high demand for such extensions. One area particularly affected by prolific basement excavations is Barnes.

“Barnes is very close to my heart,” says Brian. “I lived there most of my adult life and it’s such a lovely community. It’s the kind of place that you expect some peace and quiet and you expect to be respected by your neighbours. I am the kind of person who won’t mow his lawn on a Sunday because I know people need a day of rest! And that is a million miles away from this ‘my basement is more important than your health’ attitude.”

A group of Barnes residents deeply concerned about the rapid rise in local basement excavations have formed The Safer Basements Campaign. Barnes resident and award-winning composer Howard Goodall CBE is a keen and active supporter of this newly formed movement.

Credit: Twitter

“First of all, it is important to say that The Safer Basements Group is not against basements, we just want them to be safer,” explains a spokesperson from the group. “People have a right, in principle, to develop their homes and the current UK law supports them in doing so. But where there is dispute or doubt is where such developments impact upon neighbours, and their right to live in peace without their home being damaged in the process. We would like to see better protection for the neighbours of basement excavation, and for neighbours’ concerns to be heard and acted upon.”

Another concern in Barnes specifically is the type of soil found there, which some believe is not suitable for excavation of any kind. Historically, many areas in and around Richmond have had problems with underground water and there is further risk due to its close proximity to the river.

“Much if not all of Barnes is located on non-cohesive soil,” explains the spokesperson. “Many geologists would advise against excavating basements in such terrain altogether. The high incidence of damage to neighbouring houses from basement excavations in Barnes is caused by the nature of the ground here and by the failure of developers and planners to respond to it with expertise and care.”

Unlike other London boroughs, Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council has chosen not to strengthen its regulations regarding basement development, whereas councils such as Camden and Kensington and Chelsea are tackling the same problems with rigour. Both councils now require a Basement Impact Assessment to be carried out by experts with specific qualifications, as well as a detailed construction plan from anyone wishing to dig a basement. Only when these have been received and accepted by the council’s technical experts will a planning application even be considered.

Richmond upon Thames recently issued guidelines suggesting tests to accompany any planning application for a basement, but these are seen as insufficient as they do not specify the level of expertise and qualifications required in order to perform the tests, and crucially, they are not compulsory.

“Other borough councils are further ahead of the curve in putting in place modern strategies to limit all the unnecessary damage and disruption,” says the spokesperson. “Richmond upon Thames is lagging behind with what can only be described as watered-down and unenforceable ‘guidelines’ for basement development. The Safer Basements Group believes that Richmond Council, as a matter of urgency, needs to put in place effective protection for neighbours and our environment.”

Brian May believes that responsibility lies not only with local councils, but also with the homeowners themselves who are considering a basement extension.

“I think all councils are to blame. Kensington has made a change but it’s too little, way too late. It needs more than that, it needs prosecutions for these people who destroy lives. No matter what the background, no matter what permissions they have, they do not have permissions to destroy other peoples’ lives. If you can’t build your basement without disrupting all your neighbours’ lives for three years, then don’t do it. If you need more space or a swimming pool – please move to the country! Buy a house which is realistic to your requirements of space, or else don’t buy it!”

As the basement battle continues in Barnes and beyond, Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston and Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, was unavailable to comment.

For more information visit the Safer Basements Campaign website
For more information about Brian May visit his website or you can find him on Twitter at @DrBrianMay