The rise in “billionaire basements” – subterranean home extensions in some of London’s most expensive boroughs – is attracting fresh scrutiny amid concerns over a rise in fatalities and serious injuries.
An investigation by construction inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive will look at properties in Kensington and Chelsea as well as Hammersmith and Fulham next week, as the government prepares to clamp down on unsafe practices.
HSE reported 17 deaths of construction workers over the last 10 years as a result of collapsing excavations. There were 27 serious injuries over the same period.
The construction industry is one of the most dangerous in the UK, employing 5% of all employees but accounting for 31% of workplace fatalities, according to HSE statistics.
Last December, Conrad Sidebottom, a company director, was jailed for three years, after labourer Anghel Milosavlevici was crushed to death at a basement excavation in Fulham. Sidebottom and another man, Richard Golding, were convicted of failing to take reasonable care for Milosavlevici’s health and safety.
Inspection teams will be looking for key safety issues: collapsing excavation, risk of building collapse from alterations, the dangers of handling heavy steel beams, and of poor access and risks of open or unprotected parts of the site.
HSE construction inspector James Hickman, whose team covers south-west London, said: “The construction of basements in London is increasingly widespread. Often it is carried out under existing homes as owners seek to increase their living space without a house move.”
“The work is technically challenging and can carry substantial risk. Standards are often poor and often vulnerable sections of the labour market are recruited.
“Contractors are failing to appoint a competent temporary works engineer to design suitable propping to support excavations and existing structures. Likewise, on many projects basic safeguards are missing, such as edge protection to prevent falls from height. And all too often little thought is given to providing proper welfare facilities for site workers.
“Where we find poor practice that is putting lives at risk we will take action, including stopping work and prosecuting those responsible.”
Overall, there were 42 fatalities among construction workers in Britain in 2013-14, with the most prevalent cause being a fall from height, which killed 19 workers.
Last year, Kensington and Chelsea won approval on new rules to restrict “dig-downs” to just one storey below ground level after complaints over multistorey extensions planned by wealthy residents. Buildings more than a century old have been fitted with swimming pools, cinema rooms, spas and tennis courts.
In 2013, Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich was given the go-ahead for a £100m home in Chelsea, which included plans to excavate a two-storey basement.
In 2012, after Christoph Stanger, the boss of Goldman Sachs, began to dig under his £7m property in Kensington Palace Gardens to create a children’s playroom, the house began to subside, pulling the facades of his neighbour’s houses down with it.
This article was written by Karen McVeigh, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd March 2015 16.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010