Homes: When the party's over

A new Act aims to protect the rights of adjoining neighbours.

Annette Whitney looks at the cracks in her ceiling and the damp stains on her walls and wonders daily when they are going to be put right. When improvement work on her block of flats in north London began seven months ago she had no idea of the disruption that would follow.

The litany of crises that Ms Whitney has recorded in a diary make grim reading, but illustrate graphically why a new Act about to come into force is long overdue. The Party Wall Act 1996 for the first time protects the rights of all adjoining owners - such as Annette Whitney. Her myriad causes for complaint, from floods to the removal of her TV aerial, should not arise under the provisions of the Act.

The troubles for Ms Whitney and her neighbours began last summer with the construction of an extra storey. "My lounge ceiling started to crack and bits of plaster came down when the builders started to demolish the roof. The wind whipped off the plastic sheeting and every time it rained, water came through. I had loads of little bowls all around the place. I can remember lying in bed in tears one night listening to all the drips."

On one occasion, Ms Whitney returned home from work to hear the sound of running water. "I opened my front door and water was gushing up like Niagara Falls. The men had been working on the mains and the pressure of the water blew a cap. I went berserk. I had turn to off the electricity, so there was no heating or lighting. I had to spend the night in a hotel." Until the end of December, when the roof went on, less dramatic leaks were an everyday occurrence. "The cracks got wider and the whole ceiling became black and mouldy. I had to take the wallpaper off because it was slimy and smelling, and even though it has dried out I am still waiting for repairs," she adds.

Ironically, while her flat deteriorates, so the general appearance of the block - with its new extensions - improves. Annette Whitney is pinning her hopes on the recent visit of a loss adjuster and the promises of the owner, Robert Stayton. Mr Stayton has told The Independent that the structural work on the building would be finished within two weeks then repairs would start on Ms Whitney's flat.

Philip Tobin, a chartered surveyor, is advising Dr and Mrs Heilbron, neighbours of Annette Whitney. "If the Act had been in place, the developer would have had to notify tenants in the block of his plans, and provide them with detailed drawings," says Mr Tobin. The regulations will ensure that neighbours suffer minimum inconvenience when work is started - with payment of compensation when appropriate. The Act also allows owners to undertake work without obstruction from an unco-operative adjoining owner.

The Heilbrons, whose main home is outside London, have been unable to use their flat for six months. Lore Heilbron has a familiar story of broken ceilings, leaks and decaying carpets and bedding. "We have no lights because they were ripped out and there is no heating because the boiler cannot be made to work. Everything now needs doing," she says. "Our family is in London and my husband and I used to come down for 10 days every month. It has completely disrupted our life."

The venture started, though, with their approval and that of the other tenants. The block was dilapidated, recalls Mrs Heilbron. The bells did not work, the staircase ceiling had fallen in and the roof needed replacing, so when a builder presented a scheme to refurbish it they all agreed. The fact that it changed hands again before the work began was a further complication.

Under the Party Wall Act, however, each owner can appoint a surveyor who then becomes independent of their appointing owners. This legal provision means that they have impartially to apply the terms of the Act, not follow the whims of a client. In the event of a dispute, a third surveyor would arbitrate. The Heilbrons, who are pressing for compensation, would also have benefited from having had a formal record made of the state of their home before the work started. This is a requirement of the Act.

John Anstey, an architect of the new Act and the RICS spokesman on party walls, believes the emphasis on consultation and communication will put a stop to the many financially ruinous disagreements between neighbours. "I had a client whose neighbour refused to let him underpin the party wall. This Act allows for work to be done without permission provided the correct procedures are followed." In another case, it cost a client pounds 35,000 to establish that her property had been seriously damaged by a neighbour's undeclared building work. "Just tell your neighbour what you are doing. Go round with the plans and a formal letter and keep him informed. You don't have to employ a surveyor if you can reach agreement."

How will the Party Wall Act affect you?

Philip Tobin of Strettons, chartered surveyors, gives a run-down:

A party wall is the shared dividing wall between any two separately owned flats or houses. It can include the boundary wall or fence. Owners carrying out work will have new obligations towards their neighbours. For instance, they will have to comply with safety and building controls and not work at unreasonable hours. Horrific stories of houses cracking up, chimney stacks toppling and so on after building work has been carried out next door should be become a thing of the past. The London Building Acts, enlightened legislation of 300 years ago, already provides protection to adjoining owners. Now anyone in England and Wales has rights to statutory protection.

The owner or developer must serve a notice up to two months in advance with details of the proposed work. If the neighbour has not agreed within 14 days he is assumed to have dissented. He can also serve a counter-notice requiring additional work for the benefit of his property, eg underpinning in subsidence cases. The cost will be borne by the developer, but a neighbour who has significantly benefited may have to contribute. There is a timetable to prevent either party dragging their heels.

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