“An Englishman's home is his castle,” This is a very old saying, which initially proclaimed the right for someone to prevent entry to their home. Over time it has progressively been used to imply that people have an exclusive right to act entirely as they please within their own home. The truth is that they do not. This becomes crystal clear to any home owner who decides to undertake significant construction work on, or in proximity to, the boundary between his/her property and that of his/her neighbour.
Disputes about works undertaken on party walls appear to be on the increase. Key to preventing conflict, and resolving problems early and economically, is clear communications between neighbours. It invariably helps to keep a neighbour informed and as happy as possible before and during works on a party wall. This can be an immense challenge, particularly in the light of the fact that a neighbour will usually experience an element of negativity and discomfort because of building works, but is unlikely to enjoy any of the advantages that the project is designed to provide for the home owner who has initiated the works.
Ensuring a neighbour is suitably informed about construction works on their boundary, or close to his/her property, can be a challenge, but it is immensely important. It is also a legal obligation. The Party Wall Act 1996 (PWA) requires a home owner to give a neighbour notice of certain types of work before starting. Minor works, which are unlikely to impact significantly on a neighbour, such as plastering a wall or putting up shelves, do not require a home owner to notify the neighbour.
PWA permits property owners to carry out certain specific works, including work which goes to the full depth of a party wall, while also protecting the interests of adjoining residents, and anyone else who might be disturbed by the work. PWA is not intended as a device to enable neighbours to hinder proposed works simply because they do not want them to happen. However, if a home owner fails to notify a neighbour properly, then the construction works can easily be delayed, and the project could end up costing a lot more than originally budgeted for.
The PWA is not concerned only with party walls, i.e. walls and floors (e.g. in flats) which are shared by adjoining buildings. It also regulates the relationship between neighbouring property owners in respect of certain types of construction work on, or near, the boundary between their connected properties.
A common type of dispute occurs when proposed works to be carried out on a party wall are objected to by a neighbour. There is also the potential for a dispute to occur when building works on one side of a boundary cause damage to a neighbour’s property. In either case, a failure to comply with the PWA could result in the neighbour obtaining an injunction from a court to prevent the works from continuing and/or, a judgment for compensation for any loss or damage resulting from the works, plus legal costs.
The PWA prescribes the appointment of a surveyor by each neighbour, or a single surveyor appointed jointly, to operate for both sides. For example, if a PWA compliant notice is served on the neighbour, and damage occurs, any disputes over the damage will be dealt with by the appointed surveyor(s) whose task is to help both sides to resolve issues quickly and effectively, rather than through slow and costly litigation. The appointed surveyor(s) is required to act impartially, work with the neighbours to achieve a solution and draw up a document that settles the dispute between them. The document is known as an Award. It is legally binding, much the same as an order made in a court.
A PWA Award may be concerned specifically with the extent of the works, restrictions on timing of the works, and any additional works that might be required. With cases that result in loss or damage suffered by the adjoining owner, the Award will normally include the level of compensation payable.
There is no facility in the PWA to challenge the substance of an Award through the courts. Nonetheless the Act provides that either party can appeal to the County Court, within 14 days, to have an Award overturned on grounds that the surveyor(s) failed to observe the dispute resolution procedure prescribed in the PWA.
The PWA has been in force for around 20 years and, if anything, its provisions are becoming more relevant than ever before. In London, basement developments are increasingly popular where the capacity to extend properties out and up is extremely limited. However, the nature of basement expansion projects, where works can potentially effect foundations of nearby properties, can give rise to greater potential for damage to neighbour properties. This can increase the potential for construction works to be delayed, and create an environment for neighbours to fall out.
The PWA provides a comprehensive and effective mechanism for avoiding and resolving party wall disputes. A growth in the numbers of home owners deciding to extend and improve their properties rather than moving means there is likely to be more need for it in the future.
Martin Burns 29 September 2017