Would you like to live next door to this?
Would you like to live next door to this? Inadequate, defective and missing foundations, crumbling masonry, no ring beam?
A 28-year saga of botched and hazardous construction, as reported in the Carmarthenshire Herald and the Llanelli Herald this week. Could the local authority step in? Yes. Will the local authority take decisive action? No
A two-storey extension, on the back of no.43 Felinfoel Road, Llanelli, went up in 1988. A further single-storey extension, loosely tacked on to it, followed in 1990. It has loomed over the back yard of the next-door house, no.41 Felinfoel Road, ever since.
Clive and Pam Edwards live in no.41. They have accumulated, over 28 years, boxes of correspondence about the defective extensions. The quantity of information is so great that dissecting and analysing it is a colossal task that few people would want to undertake.
The gist, though, is relatively simple. Botched and faulty decisions in the past have blighted no.41 – and have also damaged no.43.
In June 2003 Waterman Burrow Crocker, civil and structural consulting engineers commissioned by Dyfed Powys Police, said at the end of a long list of serious defects that “We would therefore class the extension as a dangerous structure”.
Nothing was done at the time.
Part of the outer skin of the building was removed after a 2006 report by Wyatt and Watts, consulting civil and structural engineers, said it was dangerous. There were no wall ties securing it to the inner skin, and in a high wind it might have collapsed – onto the home of Clive and Pamela Edwards.
But the numerous other defects and potential dangers remained.
In September2007 Martin Watts of Wyatt & Watts wrote to Tim Rees at solicitors Douglas-Jones Mercer, acting for Carmarthenshire County Council, saying “The partial removal of the outer blockwork skin has effectively removed the original dangerous structure concerns but resulted in new stability concerns for the now exposed inner skin and flat roof construction to no.43 under high winds and storms. The removal of the outer skin has also made both properties more vulnerable to rain and damp penetration at this location”.
And that is the situation today.
Council chief executive forbids staff to inspect property
Carmarthenshire County Council, the planning authority, maintains the line that the problem is nothing to do with them, just a neighbour dispute. Chief Executive Mark James CBE has taken charge, refusing to allow officers to carry out risk assessments, and refusing to allow any staff to answer questions from Mr and Mrs Edwards’ councillor, Bill Thomas, as well as from the Edwardses themselves.
Despite this declaration of ‘nothing to do with us’, the council is organising an inspection every two years. The most recent, on May 22 2015, found rat droppings above the ground-floor bathroom of no.41, which shares a party wall with no.43 – the wall which now lacks an outer skin. The rodents have chewed through electrical cables, said Mr Edwards.
Nevertheless, Martin Watts of Wyatt & Watts reported “no discernible change in the physical condition and stability of the visible areas of wall between the two properties since my last inspection in August 2012” although the “continued exposure of this wall to the elements has caused increased damp issues and damage to wall finishes particularly to the visible wall areas within no.43.” Yet “based on these findings I do not consider this wall is presently in a dangerous condition”. The council has used this finding to absolve it from having to organise repair.
Not indefinitely – Mr Watts also wrote that the “present construction arrangement cannot be left in this state indefinitely”. For how much longer, he does not say. Is 28 years not long enough?
Mr Mark James’ order for officers to do nothing about 43 Felinfoel Road appears to conflict with advice on the council’s own website, in a section on ‘Dangerous Structures’, which starts: “If you are concerned that a building or structure may be dangerous you can contact us at any time. In the interest of public safety a 24 hours a day service is provided to cover Office and Non Office hours with the aid of Careline to cover out of office incidents concerning dangerous structures.
“Where necessary the danger will be removed immediately by our own specialist contractors under the close supervision of an experienced senior building control officer who will ensure that the work is carried out in the most suitable way.”
The problem with no.43 seems to be that the council does not believe the structure dangerous enough to force it to act – although 13 years ago Waterman Burrow Crocker said: “Events such as high winds or softening of the subsoil below the foundations may cause the structure to become overloaded and collapse”.
The Herald asked Carmarthenshire County Council for a statement, and this was the response: “We believe that we have explained the position fully to Mr and Mrs Edwards in correspondence and have nothing to add.”
The stress of living next to the awful extension has taken a severe toll on Clive and Pamela Edwards. They cannot solve the problem – no.43, currently unoccupied, belongs to Mr Simon Baier. Mr Baier is an engineer who lives at Woodland Manor, Llangennech Park, between Llanelli and Pontarddulais. He and Julie Baier own a small company, SGB Engineering Ltd, which changed its name from Grantrise Ltd on July 7 1997.
Mr Baier had the extensions built, and received a grant of £3,994 from Llanelli Borough Council, which approved the works as satisfactorily completed, a conclusion with which none of the structural engineers who have examined it since would agree, given the defects they all catalogued.
Mr and Mrs Edwards could try to sell their home – but who would buy it, with next door’s defective extensions looming over the kitchen and back yard? In addition, the two-story extension uses the whole of the party wall between the properties as the remaining lower portion of the outer skin, and that wall has voids in it due, said Clive Edwards, to the extension builders’ decision to remove no.41’s rear chimney breast. Mrs Edwards’ great aunt was living there at the time, and at 88 years old not fully aware of the damage being inflicted.
Neighbour also distressed
Simon Baier, owner of no.43 Felinfoel Road, says he would like nothing better than to solve his extension problem. “I have wanted to complete it for almost 30 years,” he said. “I have gone down the legal route, my solicitor and Mr Edwards’ solicitor have agreed party wall repairs in the past, and on three or four occasions builders have started work, but they need access to no.41 to do the work, and Mr Edwards has not let them continue, in fact he has asked them to leave.
“I even said to the council, go and do the repairs and send me the bill, but Mr Edwards would not let the council’s builders onto his property.
”At the moment I am trying to get an enforcement order to allow builders access to no.41. It’s cost a fortune in legal fees. I reckon over £60,000 just since 2007.
“I can’t live in no.43. Water has come in and the upstairs ceilings in the extension have fallen down, and the ceiling in the kitchen extension downstairs.
“The market value of the house would be about £130,000, but the best offer I have received so far is £58,000.”
Mr Edwards agreed that he would not let builders on his property to do shoddy repairs, but said he was not aware of Mr Baier’s request for the council to do the rebuilding, and also said he had never knowingly asked council-contracted builders to leave. “I would be happy if the council came along to do the work,” he said. “It would have to be done in line with Building Regulations, and I am sure the council would insist on that.”
Grant gave illusion of respectability
Why has the faulty extension next door not been rebuilt?
- The conflict is not about doing repairs: both Mr Baier and Mr Edwards know that repairs must be done. It is about the scope and quality of repairs. “The extension must comply with the plans drawn up for the original planning application,” said Mr Edwards. In his view, that includes proper foundations and the inclusion of a ring beam –but rebuilding the whole structure would be far more expensive than tidying it up.
- Llanelli Borough Council – later part of Carmarthenshire County Council – approved the first, two-storey extension and gave it the grant of £3,994. Why the faulty work was passed as satisfactory, when it lacked building regulations approval, has never been explained. The grant gave the extension an illusion of respectability.
- Carmarthenshire council officers, including Chief Executive Mark James, appear to have been vexed by Mr Edwards’ frequent, detailed letters, to the point of opting to ignore them.
- Legislation for dangerous buildings should provide the means for the council to rebuild the extension and take a charge on the property to cover the cost of the work, but the word ‘dangerous’ is open to interpretation. The latest check, in 2015, says the two-storey wall is not imminently dangerous – but that it cannot remain ‘indefinitely ‘. The check did not include the defective foundations, but did record rodent droppings – hardly beneficial to the health of Pam and Clive Edwards, in fact potentially dangerous.
Councils have vast range of possible actions
The law does not require a structure to be tumbling down before a local authority can act. Samuel Townend, a barrister at Keating Chambers, wrote in ‘Dangerous/defective buildings and the role of the local authority’, published in Local Government Lawyer in May 2014, that “The range of possible actions that can be taken by a local authority when faced with a defective or dangerous building or structure within its jurisdiction are vast. With fore-thought early action, albeit involving some initial expense in preparing an application to the courts for a relevant order, avoids the local authority taking the risk of being liable to pay sometimes heavy compensation to parties affected that have not themselves caused the danger to eventuate.
“If a local authority, knowing about a defective or dangerous structure, leaves matters until emergency action is required, it has only got itself to blame if it subsequently faces claims for compensation.”
If the wall of no.43 collapses on no.41, Carmarthenshire County Council could not claim ignorance of the dangers. Waiting until the danger level reaches fifty nine minutes to midnight is not a sensible option, because action can be taken if a structure is ‘defective’ – and the extensions to 43 Felinfoel Road have been defective for 28 years.
Section 80 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is one of the options proposed by Mr Townend in his article. This gives a local authority the right to serve an abatement notice on the owner of the defective premises or structure, for a nuisance caused by a structural defect.
Section 77 of the Building Act 1984 is also a possibility. The council can apply to a court for an order requiring the property owner to carry out remedial work – and if he or she refuses, the council can have it done and recharge the owner.
Clive Edwards, who is a cancer sufferer, is desperate for remedial action to be taken. “We can’t sell our house for anything like its real value,” he said. “Who would want to live here? We don’t go out into the yard now, because we can’t bear to look at the monstrosity.”
It is a monstrosity which might crush their house, and them with it, and also a monstrosity which is a nightmare for owner Simon Baier.
And it all began with incompetent, potentially dangerous work which Llanelli Borough Council should not have approved, but did – an error which, uncorrected, has led to a seemingly intractable problem 28 years later.