Subsidence victims present united front: Maria Scott detects a new spirit among afflicted by sinking feeling

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The Independent Online
SUBSIDENCE should become a less menacing prospect for homeowners if a new victims' support group is successful in improving the way the problem is analysed, treated and paid for.

More than 200 homeowners, engineers, surveyors and others attended a meeting in London this week to form the Subsidence Claims Association.

It intends to apply for charitable status and to act as a lobbying and support group on behalf of people whose homes have been damaged by subsidence. Insurance companies were heavily criticised at the meeting for the way they are dealing with subsidence claims.

The meeting was organised by Christopher Hall, a partner in the solicitors Jakobi & Co, which specialises in personal injury claims against insurance companies.

He decided there was a need for an initiative to help subsidence victims after reading articles about homeowners' problems in the Independent.

The Subsidence Claims Association is asking for subscriptions of pounds 25 a year and hopes to produce its first newsletter in six weeks' time. The association's committee, headed by Mr Hall, includes engineers and surveyors.

It hopes to draw up a code of practice for insurance companies and others in the field. One of the main aims of the code would be to set limits on the time taken to monitor and remedy subsidence. Eventually, the association may set up a telephone helpline.

Subsidence claims cost the insurance industry pounds 540m last year, according to figures released last month by the Association of British Insurers. Buildings insurance premiums for people in subsidence-prone areas have rocketed.

This week Abbey National announced that premiums for policyholders in highest-risk areas will be going up by between 58 and 79 per cent and people will in future have to pay the first pounds 1,000 of any subsidence claim. The new terms apply now on new policies and to renewals from 1 September.

Many people affected by subsidence detect a hardening of attitudes on the part of insurers as they seek to stem the tide of claims.

Mr Hall said these troubles were reflected in the mood of last Thursday's meeting. 'Inevitably, claimant after claimant came out with their horror stories.'

Sun Alliance came in for particular criticism, he said, and a separate Sun Alliance action group has been formed.

He said the Subsidence Claims Association hopes to co-operate with a separate initiative being taken by the Institution of Structural Engineers to develop a consensus between insurers, engineers, builders, surveyors and others on reparing subsidence damage.

A working party was set up earlier this year by the institution under Brian Clancy, an engineer. He hopes to produce a guide to good practice in about six months' time.

Mr Clancy believes that in many cases professionals, lenders and homeowners are over-reacting to subsidence. He suspects that the amount of money being spent on subsidence repairs has escalated out of proportion to the seriousness of many cases.

'We want to take the heat out of the issue,' he said. 'How have we got to a position where hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent on subsidence whereas 20 years ago virtually nothing was being spent?'

He believes that the availability of insurance has probably led to more being spent than necessary, but he denies that his sympathies lie with insurers. 'I act for both insurers and claimants.'

He does not lay all the blame for the subsidence explosion at the doors of householders eager to get a lavish repair or refurbishment job at the expense of their insurance company. He says lenders also need educating because they are often over-suspicious about the slightest sign of subsidence when assessing whether a house is a good risk for a mortgage.

'There has been a lot of litigation against surveyors. If they see the slightest evidence of a problem they worry.'

Professionals are enthusiastic about consensus on the issues. Laurence Dewhurst, of the London engineers Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners, is increasingly concerned about subsidence damage being caused by trees and says local authorities have inadequate policies for dealing with the ones for which they are responsible.

He hopes councils will contribute to the discussion run by the Institution of Structural Engineers.

Anyone wanting to join the Subsidence Claims Association can write to Christopher Hall at Jakobi & Co, Swedenborg House, 21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH.

(Photograph omitted)

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