Walking home across The Heath a couple of weeks ago I came across one of my neighbours weeping on a bench. I took over rocking her howling baby in his pram while she fumbled for a tissue.
When at last the two of them had stopped crying, she told me what was the matter.
The house next door to hers is having a sub-basement dug out; the contractors eight weeks into a forty-four week project.
“I don’t think I can stand it another day, let alone the rest of the year” she sniffed. They use noise to torture people, you know? The CIA did it in Iraq and Grenada. It drives you out of your mind.”
She didn’t need to tell me. I’m still recovering from the double whammy of a six-month excavation next door that ran concurrent to the three-year construction of a swimming pool beneath the house opposite.
It’s not just the pneumatic drills, though god knows they’re bad enough, it’s the rest of the disruption: skip lorries arriving at the crack of dawn, cement mixers spewing forth their load while we were trying to eat our cornflakes, blocked drains and the endless, choking dust. Worst of all though was the dread of when the onslaught was going to start up again.
At least my kids were at school; my neighbour’s baby still needs two naps a day.
“I’ve tried asking them if they can take their lunch at a regular time, so I can put him down while it’s quiet” she told me, “and they said ‘no problem’ but nothing’s changed. I’m worried what effects it’s having on him.”
“The worst thing is, the feeling of powerlessness,” a local friend told me later over a pint at The Duke of Hamilton. “So long as the builders operate inside the time restrictions there’s bugger all you can do.” We were sitting in the shadow of the old nurse’s home just off New End, that developers hope to turn into luxury flats with a staggering three subterranean levels!
“It’s lunacy,” he continued. “In an area notorious for it’s underground streams and unstable ground conditions. The Council’s mad to let it go on.”
He had a point. One planned excavation – for a ‘basement atelier room’ no less – in Gayton Road became a damp squib only after builders found a tributary to the River Fleet 5ft down!
“The water’s got to go somewhere,” my friend reminded me as he headed off to the bog. “It’s alright for the person who’s built a concrete box in the ground but pity the poor sod next door.”
And he should know: the lower ground floor of the Victorian building he lives in had never had a day’s problem with damp until developers performed a deep-shaft land-grab beneath the building opposite. Now it’s as moist as a toad’s armpit – go figure.
You can’t dig a hole without the ground responding. Whether it’s subsidence in Rudall Crescent or water ingress in Well Road the demand for swimming pools, home-cinemas and wealth showrooms by London’s uber-consumers has profound consequences.
So why is Camden so reluctant to stop these ‘iceberg developments’? Partly because planning is preoccupied with above ground impact; partly it’s a lack of resources, or appetite, for the fight.
In the absence of a ban, I think it’s time to take a lesson from another area where wealth is extracted from the ground – fracking. Whether or not you agree with the technology, the proposal to compensate neighbouring households for the disruption and to plough a proportion of the profits back into the community is sound.
That way my neighbour with the baby would have had the option to do what the owners of basement excavations invariably do – live elsewhere during construction, instead of being driven from her home by the drills and the dust to weep and shiver on The Heath.
“I’m seriously considering putting the house on the market” she’d confided. “At least I can safely tell prospective buyers they’ve got a good chance of getting permission to dig down”