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Why did Georgian house collapse?

During the night of 2/3 November 2020 this beautiful house in Durham Place, Chelsea, built in 1790, collapsed completely into ruins.

Before the collapse, building works had been in progress for some time, and a basement was being excavated at the house next door.

Jules Turner, member of the Society’s Planning Committee for Royal Hospital Ward, made a Freedom of Information request to the Health and Safety Executive, but received on 26th April 2022 only a report on the facts up to the collapse, with no indication why the building collapsed and no indication of any action to be taken by HSE to prevent similar incidents.

CivTrack 7757 – Factual Impact Report

An  enquiry was conducted by the Health and Safety Executive (RBKC were not involved in monitoring the construction or demolition methods). According to press reports the HSE report (which does not seem to have been published) was concluded in early 2021.  It was unable to identify the cause of the collapse, and could find no evidence that there had been a failure to comply with any relevant regulations.

On 9th November 2020 The Chairman of The Chelsea Society had written the following letter to Cllr. Elizabeth Campbell, Leader of RBKC

“The Chelsea Society was most grateful for the Zoom briefing which Councillor Thalassites and Council officers gave us on 9 November about the building collapse in Durham Place. We appreciate your willingness to discuss with us the action which the Council might take in response to it. We are aware that the Council itself was not responsible for providing Building Inspectors at the site; and that there are legal constraints on the Council’s freedom of action.

The council of the Chelsea Society discussed the issue at its meeting on 4 November. I am writing to set out the measures which we agreed we would encourage the Council to take. We recognise that in some cases they would require changes to national legislation.

The collapse was a shocking event: not only because of the loss of a fine heritage building, but because of the loss of human life which it could have caused. It is a huge relief that no-one was killed or injured. But there has clearly been a massive failure of some kind in the implementation of the building control regime.

We understand that the Health and Safety Executive will conduct an enquiry. But there is action which in our view, should be taken pending that enquiry’s outcome.

Our concerns reflect the fact that, as we understand it, basement works were being undertaken at one or more neighbouring properties at the time when the collapse occurred. Permission to excavate a basement has been granted for both No 4 and Nos 5-6 Durham Place. In objecting to these applications the Chelsea Society argued that the proposed works could pose a risk to the overall structure of the terrace.

We do not of course know whether in fact they were a contributory factor in the collapse. It may be that they were irrelevant. But we believe that after an event of this kind a precautionary approach should be taken until there is greater clarity over what exactly occurred. There is, as you are aware, widespread public anxiety in Chelsea about the safety of basement constructions, as well as about the massive inconvenience (to say the least) which they pose for those living in their vicinity.

So we would like to see the implementation, on a temporary basis and pending the outcome of the Health and Safety Executive’s enquiry, of the following measures:

– an immediate investigation by Council officers into whether the conditions imposed for all the recent construction works in Durham Place were properly implemented. We are glad to learn from our Zoom meeting that this is something you have in hand.

– a moratorium on the granting of planning permission for any new basement developments anywhere in the Borough and the revocation of any permissions granted where construction has not yet started. We recognise that his does not, under current national legislation, lie in the Council’s power. But we hope that you will lend your voice in support of changes to that legislation which would give local Councils the power to act in an emergency of this kind.

– in cases where the construction of a basement has already commenced the imposition of rigorous inspections and controls to check that all construction method conditions are being respected and to re-validate any assumptions made about the methodology involved. We again acknowledge that under national legislation developers have the right to employ their own building control inspectors. We hope however that the Council will examine ways in which its own experts might validate their work.

– a review of the Supplementary Planning Document on basements to assess whether it is still fit for purpose, for example in relation to terraces and surety payments. It is encouraging to hear that the Council is committed to doing this. Following the commissioning of the Arup and Baxter studies it required a huge effort on the Council’s part, for which we were grateful, to amend the previous rules on basement construction and to impose more stringent ones. The collapse in Durham Place suggests that this may not be enough.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has shown the importance of ensuring the highest possible standards of construction safety. All the more reason why the Council should now react with due precaution to what has happened in Durham Place.

I am copying this email to Councillor Thalassites and to the Councillors representing Chelsea wards.

Best wishes

James Thompson

Chairman, The Chelsea Society




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