5 Jun 2006

On the Party Wall Act

What is the purpose of the Party Wall Act? First of all let me explain what the Party Wall Act is. It sets out to ensure that if you do work on your house, you don’t cause any consequential damage to your neighbours. It had existed since the year dot in London but the old Tory government, in all its wisdom, chose to extend its powers across the whole of England & Wales in 1996. Prior to that, if you caused damage to your neighbour’s property, they could sue you for compensation. You can still do this of course so arguably the Party Wall Act doesn’t make a huge difference to the way things stand between neighbours.

But it does make quite a difference to how you have to go about organising building work. It’s a red tape exercise par excellence, and it also causes frictions and fears where previously none existed.

By way of example, one of my old muckers, Phil, has just started on the rebuilding of a terraced house in central Cambridge. He is building a new wall, hard against the boundary. As it’s within 3 metres of the neighbours rear addition, the Party Wall Act had to be invoked. Back in the old days, a friendly chat with the neighbour would have sufficed. If undertaken with charm and tact, the neighbour would be willing to put up with the inconvenience of having scaffolding erected on their side of the boundary in exchange perhaps for some minor favour like repairing guttering or slipped slates. It came with the territory of owning a terraced house.

But now the first the neighbour gets to hear about it is when an official letter from a Party Wall Surveyor plops onto their doormat. The whole exchange starts off on a bad note: defensiveness and hostility are the watchwords. This particular neighbour was a single lady who immediately felt that she was about to be taken for a ride by unscrupulous builders and she called for the appointment of her own Party Wall Surveyor, which under the Act she is fully entitled to do, at the expense of the applicant. Letters get exchanged, surveyors make reports, the whole scene gets quasi-legal. Which means both expensive and time consuming. It ended up with her demanding that no builder should set foot on her side of the boundary and that any scaffolding needed to be erected to build the wall mustn’t touch any of her property. Neither measure will protect her property, which was the original purpose of the Act; instead it will just make the whole process much slower and more expensive to complete, as the wall will have to be built overhand from inside.

“The funny thing is,” said Phil, “you’d think from this exchange that she would be a real dragon but I have since spoken to her and she’s actually very nice. I just think she got freaked out by all the formal aspects of the Party Wall Act and over-reacted. It’s such a stupid, useless piece of legislation. No good comes of it and it’s yet another example of the simple act of building being made ridiculously complicated and confrontational.”

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