HC Deb 17 February 1984 vol 54 cc538-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Richard Needham (Wiltshire, North)

One question goes to the heart of the matter—should a freestanding wall remain upright for more than two years at a time, and, if it has fallen down, who should be responsibile for putting it up again? A second question comes out of the first. If the wall falls down, should there be building regulations that specify how such free-standing walls should be built? If free-standing walls are allowed to be built however and whenever a builder decides, the results, should they then fall down and kill someone, would be extraordinarily serious. It should not be left to an industry, unless it can be shown that that industry is properly responsible, to decide how these walls should be built.

One might think that any self-respecting builder would not put up walls and be prepared to guarantee them for only two years, and that walls should last for longer than two years without falling down, but I am afraid that in my constituency there is a particular estate, built by a building company called McLeans some eight or nine years ago, where the free-standing walls have not been standing up but have been falling down. Unfortunately, the company has not been prepared to take responsibility for them.

I shall explain how planning proposals work on these walls. When a developer puts forward his plans for an estate, it is probable that the local authority will ask for boundary walls or walls round the car parks to be included in the design. However, such walls do not form part of building control regulations and therefore, although a council may say that it wants a wall of such a length or such a height, it does not stipulate how the wall should be built, and that is left up to builders.

It is here that the first problem has arisen. When the walls built by McLeans were first brought to my attention I asked the company why the walls had fallen down or were in the process of falling down and were full of cracks. The answer came from the company on 8 July 1983, so that one can see that this matter has not come up only recently. The managing director of the company, Mr. Tanner, wrote back to me saying that it is the local authority who agree what type of walls should be built and in what position they should be erected. Therefore, if a continuous wall is required, then that is what is built. But, of course, the local authority does not decide what type of wall is to be built; the local authority merely determines the length of the wall and the positioning of it. I went on to ask the managing director why his wall had not been reasonably well built, to which he replied: The general construction of such walls is in accordance with good practice applicable at the time and accepted by the various approving bodies. It seemed strange to me, if that was the case, that the walls should have been so obviously incapable of withstanding any reasonable period of life. Therefore, I got in touch, as did one of my constituents, with a reputable local surveyor. He replied in the following way: There are two codes of practice for walls such as this which were in force at the time when Green Park'— the estate that we are talking about— was developed and these are CP3 Part 2 of 1972 entitled 'Wind Loads—' which I imagine deals with the pressure of the wind on walls— and CP121 Part 1 of 1973, 'Walling, Part 1, brick and block masonry'". I imagine that that deals with how the wall is to be built. The surveyor went on to say: The maximum height of the wall"— this is the wall that came down that I asked him to look at— is (or was)" — as it fell down— 38 brick courses plus the coping layer, that is approximately 9 ft 9 in". That is when it is standing. For virtually the whole of its length, the wall is of single brick thickness (i.e. 4.5 in) although at the left hand end when viewed from the road it is of double thickness (9 in) where it joins the car ports. The surveyor then goes on to more technical points about the wall, and his next paragraph says: The overriding criterion which has to be met when designing walls under these codes of practice is the height to thickness ratio. I have carried out some calculations and am able to report that your wall falls way outside those codes of practice. In fact, given the ground conditions and the environmental criteria which are at present at Green Park, the maximum height to which a single thickness wall should he built is 3 ft. The wall was 9 ft 9 in, and in the middle of that wall was a great concrete plinth. When the wall fell down, so did the concrete plinth. Anybody who had been standing near it would have been killed. Yet when the company was asked about the matter, it repeated—and has repeated in a letter since—that the walls were built according to the good practice that was available at that time. If the walls were not built to the codes of practice laid down by British Standards, it is hardly surprising that the walls are not still up.

When dealing with a company as reputable and of such standing as McLeans, one must ask why it is not prepared to accept some responsibility for the faults of the wall. It was with some surprise that I discovered that it was not only in Wootton Bassett, on the estate in question, that such walls were falling down and tottering. In fact, Humpty-Dumpty would probably have been fortunate to sit on one of these walls: the walls would have fallen down before he could. I discovered that walls had been coming down—without any help from anyone's trumpets—in a considerable part of my area.

There is an estate at Covingham in Swindon where similar problems have arisen, and another at Broome Manor in Swindon. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) tells me that in Glastonbury the walls are not as strong as they might be. When he visited one of the estates there in which McLeans were involved, he put his hand against the wall and the wall leant. My hon. Friend is not a man of great stature or strength and was considerably alarmed at the prospect of what might have happened had he pushed any harder.

I have done what I can to bring to the notice of the company the real dangers that the walls may offer to my constituents if something is not done. I regret that the company has not responded in any way to the pressure that I have put upon it. It has hidden behind the National House Building Council guarantee. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be pleased to know that if you buy a house with an NHBC guarantee, you will be covered for 10 years, but that if it falls down after that you will have to bear the responsibility.

The guarantee for free-standing walls lasts for only two years. It is extraordinary that the NHBC is prepared to give a guarantee on a wall without specifying how it should be built. It is also wrong that a company can hide behind the two-year guarantee. A company with the reputation of McLeans should surely believe that its walls should last for longer than that.

I am concerned that the company has given me no sign of whether it realises how dangerous the walls are and whether it now intends to build them to the codes of practice laid down. I wrote again to Mr. Tanner on 2 February: I was particularly concerned to hear about the development at Haydon Wick … perhaps you could give some indication as to whether the wall at your new development will be built to the British Standard CP121. He replied: With regard to Haydon Wick, I am sure if Mr. Morrison"— that is my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes— has any questions he wishes to ask … no doubt he will deal with the matter himself and we should be only to pleased to give Mr. Morrison the information he requires. Because Haydon Wick is not in my constituency, Mr. Tanner is saying that my hon. Friend should write to him. Of course, my hon. Friend will write to him, but that will not delay Mr. Tanner's answer for very long.

Mr. Tanner continued: I also attach a copy of yesterday's front page of the Western Daily Press showing a photograph of a wall which yesterday blew down in Devizes"— the House will not be surprised to hear that walls in my part of the country are not very safe. Mr. Tanner continued: and trust that you will also be pointing this out to Mr. Morrison and that you will be applying equal vigour in dealing with all concerned in this case. The wall that fell down was a council wall around the car park. I appreciate that it is riot right that a council wall should fall down—but it is the only case I know where two wrongs make a further wrong. Mr. Tanner is saying that he will not do anything about his walls because other people are not doing anything about their walls. This is much too serious an issue for that.

If it were not such a serious matter, it could be likened to a Whitehall farce. The company refuses to say what it will do in the future, and refuses to take responsibility for what it has done in the past.

It is wrong that a company of such standing should not take responsibility beyond the two-year period. However, I understand that it has settled without prejudice elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells tells me that the company has rebuilt walls once, if not twice, on the estate in his constituency.

Does not my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary feel that, if the company is not prepared to accept responsibility beyond two years, building regulations that cover houses should not be extended to cover free-standing walls? An Englishman's home is his castle and he is responsible for its walls, but I do not see why he should not have some protection for his outer walls as well. There can be no reason for not agreeing that building regulations should not apply to those walls.

I ask the NHBC to refrain from giving warranties for walls unless it is satisfied that they have been built in accordance with codes of practice and British Standards. I hope that the council will also reconsider the length of warranties. It is ridiculous that two years should he the standard warranty period for free-standing walls.

I ask the Tarmac group, which is the holding company for McLeans, to take hold of its rogue subsidiary and to put right the walls that have been jerry-built and are still dangerous. I hope that Tarmac will ensure that no such walls are ever built again.

There is a twist in the tail of this story. When purchasers have had problems with their walls which have cracked and started to disintegrate, the local council has issued instructions that walls that present a danger should be replaced. The house owners have gone to their insurance companies for the money, but in some instances the insureres have refused to meet the claims on the ground that the walls have not been built to a proper standard. Therefore, the purchasers have had to find the money themselves.

It is intolerable that such a situation should continue. If something is not done reasonably quickly, someone will be hurt, perhaps in one of the surrounding play areas for children. The House and everybody else should appreciate that if that happens, the people responsible for any injury or death will be those who built the walls and have refused to do anything to make them good.

2.53 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

My height-to-thickness ratio is somewhat different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) and I am. therefore, even more conscious than he is of the need for tall structures to be adequately reinforced against gusts of wind.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue which involves the safety not only of his constituents, but of those in other constituencies in his part of the country. It may be helpful if I outline the purpose of the building regulations and how they apply in the construction of walls.

It is generally known that the building regulations prescribe minimum standards of construction for buildings, with a view to safeguarding the health and safety of occupants. The regulations include detailed controls for the construction of walls which form part of the structure of a building, but these provisions do not apply to free-standing or garden walls which are, by definition, unconnected with the structural stability of buildings. Building regulations apply only at the time of construction, and wall collapse or failure due to faulty construction is rare.

The British Standards Institution code of practice CP 121: Part1: 1973 contains information for designers and builders on the standards needed in the construction of masonry walls. Such guidance is widely accepted by the industry and the design professions as indicative of best practice. Where the building regulations apply to the construction of walls, they refer again to CP 121: Part 1.

Because of the present technical complexity of the building regulations we have undertaken a major reform with the aim of producing simple, easily understood regulations. The Housing and Building Control Bill will provide us with the legislative framework we need to carry this through, and by early next year we shall be laying before the House a set of regulations which will be simpler and shorter.

As an essential step in our task of preparing the new regulations, we have just carried out a series of wide-ranging public consultations. These have been of great value in that they have enabled us to decide the extent to which we should consider changing the content of the regulations. We have received no strong representations or convincing evidence on grounds of public health and safety that we should now extend the application of the regulations to garden or other free-standing walls.

It is always a difficult problem to decide how far people should be left to regulate for themselves when they carry out minor building work and how far they should be subject to the whole apparatus of detailed control by local authorities backed up by the sanctions of the criminal law. Many householders build their own garden walls and do not notify the local building control authority. On balance, we believe it is desirable to exempt from statutory control a range of minor works such as free-standing walls which involve only a slight element of risk from construction failure.

Although there is no building regulation control over the initial construction of garden walls, there is a general duty of care on all occupiers of property to ensure that their premises are reasonably safe and to continue to maintain them to reasonable standards under all conditions. This duty of the householder is owed to anyone who could be injured if the householder is neglectful, whether the risk arises on the highway or on adjoining premises.

Mr. Needham

Will my hon. Friend accept that when these new estates are developed the boundary walls are of considerable length and are insisted upon by the local authority? They include free-standing walls of considerable height surrounding car parks, for instance. They do not belong to the occupants of the houses. The ownership remains with the developer with an onus on the occupants jointly to make sure that walls are kept in good repair. If these walls have not been properly built in the first instance and are dangerous, it is very difficult for a collective group of people to undertake the repairs necessary since the ownership remains with the developer. Such walls can collapse. They could end up being extremely dangerous.

Sir George Young

In those circumstances, if they are dangerous, a local authority can apply to a magistrates' court for an order requiring the owner of a building, which includes a wall in this case, to demolish or make the structure safe. From what my hon. Friend says, I understand that the wall is still owned by the developer. If the owner fails to carry out the necessary work within the prescribed period, the local authority may carry out as much work as it considers necessary and recover the costs reasonably incurred.

Section 25 of the Public Health Act 1961 provides emergency powers where in certain cases an order from the magistrates' court is not required in order for the work to be carried out. These dangerous structure orders can be made in respect of any permanent or temporary building, including any other structure or erection of any kind, whether permanent or temporary. If, as my hon. Friend said, there was a risk to children in a play area from these structures, it seems to me that the local authority might see whether it was appropriate to use the powers which I have just described.

I am sure the House will agree that regulations can never guarantee absolute and continuing safety; we could justify an extension of their application to all walls only if there were grounds for thinking that such action would produce a genuine reduction of risk.

A continuing programme of work is done by the Building Research Establishment on the structure, integrity and design of masonry construction. The results of that research are available to designers and taken into account by the Department when it considers amendments to the building regulations. Although the work does not specifically concern free-standing walls, its results have applications for all masonry walls.

A helpful booklet has been produced by the Brick Development Association which I commend to the House. It deals with the design of plain and reinforced freestanding brick walls and is a useful technical guide to good practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North mentioned the NHBC warranty which ends in general after 10 years. However, the liability in tort of the designer or builder extends after that and an action may be brought at any time within six years of the damage occurring, irrespective of the NHBC warranty. That might be appropriate in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend.

The key point is that many walls collapse as a result of accidental damage, freak weather conditions, age or lack of maintenance. In such circumstances, a building regulation clearly would be ineffective and unenforceable.

If we extended control to the construction of all walls, the building control staffs of local authorities might be further stretched and perhaps diverted from dealing with more vital public health and safety problems, without addressing themselves to the major problem of wall collapse which may be nothing to do with construction but due to lack of maintenance, age or weather conditions.

We have to judge whether the introduction of another control would result in any lessening of the risk of collapse of a wall which might lead to loss of life or injury. On the evidence available to us art extension of the building regulations to free-standing walls would not necessarily reduce the risk of collapse.

I should like my hon. Friend to send me all the correspondence between him and the builders so that I can see whether my Department can be of help. I shall pass on to the NHBC the second recommendation in my hon. Friend's concluding remarks. I am sure that the Tarmac company will read the exchange, because my hon. Friend addressed some of his remarks to that company.

I understand the concern and frustration felt by my hon. Friend and his constituents. We shall continue to keep aspects of safety under constant review as part of our plans for the future of building control.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o' clock.