Scottish Daily Mail
The day a builder’s digger smashed a hole in the side of our house
Think you’ll be safe if builders start work next door? Radio 4’s JUSTIN WEBB has a story that will horrify every homeowner
My TEN-year-old daughter was pulling my sleeve: ‘Daddy, look!’ I think I muttered: ‘Not now, dear.’ I’d just opened the door of our South London home around this time last year and my eye had been caught by a note stuffed in the letterbox.
I opened it but before I got to read the contents, my daughter repeated: ‘No, Daddy, seriously, look!’
By now the door was fully open and what she had spotted from the step will be burned forever into my memory. In dappled sunlight, thick clouds of dust swirled around the hall. Dimly, halfway up the stairs, I could make out where the sunlight was coming from: a hole.
A hole about a yard wide punched with staggering force into the side of our house from the building site next door. The stairs were covered with ripped plaster and broken bannisters, the nails that once held them in place jutting out like shrapnel.
I actually gasped. This had just happened. What if we had returned slightly earlier? What if those nails had ripped into my daughter’s feet as she padded upstairs after her day at school? The rest of the evening is a blur. The note in the letterbox — when I got round to reading it — was a message from a digger driver to say that he had slipped at the controls, and there had been an accident.
Well, at least he took the trouble to write. The developer, the man making the money from the flats being built next door, never did.
Would there be any kind of official investigation into what happened? No. Would the building work be halted — no, not even for a minute. The very next day our mid-terrace house shook as builders carried on digging the foundations for the new flats.
yes, the hole would be repaired but any compensation for the chaos it caused or the enormous distress?
No, nothing, despite the fact that with three school-age children and two working parents, both of whom had to take time off to deal with the considerable consequences of the damage, the domestic disruption was immense. Not to mention the dust. From the explosive moment that the digger hit us, thick layers of dust could be found everywhere: on every surface, every window, even in our shoes. It took months to rid our house of it. And yet every speck was our problem, not the builders’.
For weeks we were forced to live with a boarded-up hole in the heart of our home — neighbours would come and look, like tourists visiting a bombsite from a forgotten war.
Although we were protected by the party wall agreement — which ensures that damage done to a property by neighbouring building work is repaired by the offending developer — we were not overly keen to have the work completed by the builders who had caused the chaos in the first place. So we opted for our own plasterers and decorators to carry out the repairs.
And that, of course, meant fuss, and effort, and phone call after phone call; normal family life was put on hold, consumed by a hole that we didn’t want, cause, or have any responsibility for.
I wrote the developers a letter setting out the effort and time it had cost us. I never heard back.
Eventually our home returned to normal, but the accident, which could so easily have injured any one of our children had the timing been different, left us shocked and distressed: for this, too, there was no offer of redress.
And then, two weeks ago, the builders struck again.
My daily routine after presenting the Today Programme on Radio 4 is to get a bus home and walk the dog. We had been out for an hour, and arriving back I didn’t notice anything amiss. Until I let the dog into the back garden.
There was our garden table, and there was a plank — a thick plank — lying next to it. The plank, which had sliced a corner off the table top, had come crashing down 30ft or so from the edge of scaffolding erected next door. This time there was no note.
My question is this: in these circumstances, what rights do ordinary law-abiding, safety-conscious homeowners have?
For when a scaffolder allows a plank to plunge into your garden (I’m not going to bother you with the closeshave aspects of this, but suffice to say we don’t routinely wear hard hats i n our garden) what actually happens? Nothing. WHEN I remonstrated with the building site foreman, he promi sed t he matter would be brought up with the scaffolding company. But, he warned, ‘all scaffolders are animals’.
And here the issue becomes a wider one than my domestic woes. Up and down the country we are finding ways of building on ‘ brownfield sites’, which basically means building at the end of your street, or right next door to your house.
The demolished building next to me was owned by the United Reform Church (funny – they haven’t been in touch either) and frankly it made sense to knock it down and build flats.
I am no nimbyist — at least not when it comes to planning. We are
building too few homes, and we need to build more. If you live in a city or a town, sensible redevelopment should come with the territory. It is not always convenient, but there is a convincing argument that it has to be done and the long-term effect is positive for all of us.
But when the diggers and the men with hard hats turn up next door, what rights do you have to demand that the work they do is safe?
I sat down on the morning of the falling plank and tried to establish what rights we have as householders to be protected in our homes and gardens. Crucially, I wanted to know whether we can have sites temporarily closed down when things go wrong.
First of all, I rang my local councillor. He was sympathetic but unable to help. In my part of South London, and in most areas in England, the council’s right to enforce safety at building sites has been lost. The council used to be responsible for regular inspection of building sites such as this. No longer. For all the t al k of ‘ localism’ — by t he representatives of all the political parties — we seem unable to wean ourselves off our national tendency to centralise.
So I called another number: the Health and Safety Executive, who now oversee all building sites from Penzance to the Scottish Border. Might I be able to report an incident which could easily have resulted in death or serious injury?
Well, not really. It seems that any such report has to come from the building site managers themselves and they have two weeks to compile their version of events.
My own report would be accepted and the pictures I sent would go to an inspector but because I was a member of the public it would have to be filed as a ‘concern’.
That word: concern. You see what is happening? That gentle patronising tone that officials adopt when dealing with us all. The tone that implies (as I did to my daughter) ‘not now, dear’. FRANKLY, I do not have a concern about the plank that crashed down into in my garden. No, I have something a little more than concern. I want to make an allegation of negligence that could have resulted in death.
Since the plank fell, I have noticed that men have been clambering over the scaffolding from which it toppled, putting up netting and making the structure safer. Is a visit from the Health and Safety Executive inspector imminent?
But if someone from the council had turned up on the day the plank fell, they would have seen the state it was in then. In an email, the builders said they were sorry about the garden table and offered to pay for a new one.
as a response, this misses so many points. But at the moment, in a nation bulging with health and safety legislation, this is where we stand: if a builder damages your home or your garden, you have to accept it. They will replace your garden table, or patch up the hole in your wall, and doubtless claim on their insurance. You have to suck it up.
Why not sue, people ask. However when I enquired about the possibility of closing down the building site, I was quoted a fee of £1,500 by a solicitor. Not for the legal action: just for the letter threatening it.
apparently £10,000 would be a minimum cost if my case ever got to court.
Now, in a further ‘ You couldn’t make i t up’ development, the builders want to come into our garden. They want t o build scaffolding on our side to finish the development work next door — and if they turn up with the correct party wall paperwork, we’re told, they have a perfect right to do it.
In fact, the developers say they will do it soon, whether we like it or not. and presumably, whether it is safe or not.
If I stop them, I am told, I would be committing a criminal offence. apparently they can even break down a gate if they have a policeman with them. So much for the protection of the law.
all of this hides what should be a good news story: Britain has made huge strides in building site safety. The Olympic construction in London was the first games village and stadium to be completed without a single death on site.
In fact workplace accidents now result in fewer deaths than at any time in history. ONCE I chaired a conference of health and safety specialists and they seemed like thoroughly sensible people. all too often they, and the Health and Safety Executive itself, do not deserve the bad reputation they are tarnished with. So here’s a suggestion for ‘elf and safety’ folks.
Come to South London or indeed to any town or city where construction is going on. Monitor these sites. There is a new frontier to be conquered, and people up and down the country will welcome you with open arms.
We know that accidents in the home kill large numbers of people each year. Help us make sure none of those are caused by the builders next door.