The ‘Home Improvements Pack’ is the Barbican Estates rule-book for people who want to do building works in their flats. This is something you can influence now, if you act fast. By good fortune, it is up for amendment right now. This is our last chance to get some sensible anti-noise rules into it. But you need to act fast! – It is about to be concluded. Then this window of opportunity will have slammed shut.
If anyone wants to do work on their flat, they need to get written permission from the Barbican Estate Office before starting, because their lease says that they can’t do alterations without first getting licence for alterations from the City as their landlord (which is handled by the Barbican Estate Office).
The Barbican Estate Office have a guidance booklet which tells would-be developers and their builders what they can do, how they must do it, and what they can’t do. This used to be quite a short booklet, but like everything else in our age of digital paperwork, it has ballooned into a massive 21 pages of guidance called ‘The Home Improvements Pack’.
By good fortune, the City are at this moment updating this Home Improvements Pack, and various committees of our house groups, the Barbican Association, and the RCC are involved in seeking to negotiate amendments. There’s already been one draft, and they’re currently finalising their comments on the second.
So this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – a bit like seeing Haley’s Comet, but a lot more important – to get into it all the protections we need against noise nuisance.
The problem is that there is very little in it so far about noise, although, as far as 2,100 residents are concerned, noise is about 99% of what concerns us about neighbours’ refurbishment works. There is a danger when you revamp guidance like the Home Improvements Pack, that you end up concentrating too much on issues which have arisen in the past, but are in fact no longer a practical problem, and really you should be taking the opportunity to anticipate problems which are raising their heads – such as the noise problem from more ambitious and invasive building works.
I have made some proposals, which I really think are extremely reasonable, proportionate, balanced and necessary – as I obviously would, since they’re my ideas, but please judge for yourselves.
The headings below are headings from the Home Improvements Pack
It’s 21 pages. People probably aren’t going to read it all. But the chances are they will at least read the introduction before they get bored and fall asleep (assuming no one is channelling cables next door).
The Introduction already contains a statement that the flat owner owes a duty to fellow residents about health and safety issues such as the removal of asbestos, so I want to add in “and statutory nuisance issues, such as excessive noise and vibration“.
There is a paragraph saying that landlords’ consent is a safeguard, and if you don’t get it, it may slow up your future flat sale, because you will need to get it then. That seemed very lame to me. The Barbican lease says you absolutely cannot do works without prior consent, and there is no guarantee a retrospective consent will be given later. So I want to add: “You must obtain the landlords’ consent in writing under the terms of your lease before starting any relevant works.… If appropriate, consent may be refused and you may have to reinstate the flat as it was before the works were carried out.”
That is truly the more accurate statement. What is in the draft now is inaccurate. It’s very important that people apply for a licence for alterations in advance, because that’s the only way that they get told what they can and cannot do. If they are led to feel they can just go ahead and worry about it later, that’s where the problems start.
I also want a couple of warnings put in the Introduction like this:
“Noisy work. Please carefully read the guidance on noisy work on page  and the guide to being a good neighbour on page .
Contractors. Applicants will be advised not to use contractors who persistently breach these guidelines.”
Before the poor reader falls asleep, I want him or her to know that there is guidance on noise later in the booklet that they really should read. And I want contractors to know that there may be business consequences if they flout the rules.
Chart saying what works require landlords consent.
There is a kind of flowchart which shows you what typical works do or do not require landlords’ consent. It says consent is needed to refurbish bathroom fittings, but it doesn’t mention consent being needed before jackhammering the walls or ceilings. I wanted this added to the list “Cutting or drilling into the walls or ceilings”. That is surely not contentious. All it does is bring a true fact to their attention.
Roles and responsibilities
There’s a long statement from the Barbican Estate Office, which says, in part, “We are not responsible for ‘policing’ your alteration works but we will investigate issues raised by your neighbours.” Then it reminds the flat owner that the lease contains an indemnity to the City if the flat owner breaks the lease terms. But it then ends up with the feeble warning that they reserve the right “to charge you for the cost of officer time incurred in handling complaints”. In terms of a refurbishment budget, that would be peanuts. So I want them to add – again, something which is perfectly true – “This means that the City can take legal action against you and recover from you the legal costs of doing so”. I mean to say, that is surely the real relevant threat if you breach the covenants in your lease.
This one is a bit more of a try-on, but I hope to persuade you it’s a good idea. This checklist contains a numbered list of things that the flat owners and their builder should do. I want to add this to the list of things to be done right at the start:
“Provide details of any mechanical drills, jackhammers, or similar equipment to be used by your contractors, and consult us on alternative, less intrusive, methods, which do not harm the fabric of the building.”
There is no legal obligation anywhere on the flat owners to do that, but what possible harm is there in asking them to do it? How many of them are going to check with their lawyer and say, “I don’t have to tell you”? They will just ask their contractors to list the equipment, and then, when they see that jackhammers and sub-machine guns are about to be used, and they notice the frowns on the faces of the Barbican Estate Office Staff, they might rethink things. It’s only inserting three lines into a 21 page document.
Rules for considerate working.
This is the section to which I wanted the flat owners’ attention drawn by my proposed note in the ‘Introduction’.
This is what I want to add (showing the Home Improvement Pack’s existing wording in normal type or crossed through, and my proposed additional wording underlined).
Due to the Barbican’s concrete structure, chasing out works are very can be unbearably noisy. Noisy work such as drilling or removal of structural elements or partitions and installing suspended ceilings may only take place between 10.00 and 16.00. Given the distress and the potential risk to the health of residents having to suffer excessive noise for extended periods, and the annoyance to the residents who will be your neighbours when you move into the flat, you should consider carefully whether to carry out substantial works to the concrete structure. There are alternatives, such as dry lining walls, which are just as effective and cause far less misery to other residents. You should be aware that noise which becomes prejudicial to the health of those affected (your neighbours) may lead to prosecution for statutory nuisance by the City or by way of private prosecution by affected neighbours.”
All that is perfectly true staff. If you read my earlier blog post about the law on noise, you’ll see that the threats of prosecution are accurate. Why shouldn’t they be told about them? It would certainly concentrate the mind.
Admittedly, my wording could be said to be a bit exaggerated. So make it more neutral. But keep the essence in.
There’s also a section on communication and this is my proposal for that:
You must inform your neighbours in the form of a notice to be delivered to individual flats or placed on the notice boards with an indication of the duration of the works (if possible). Highlighting episodes of especially noisy work is also useful for your neighbours though it is not always possible. Highlighting episodes of especially noisy work is essential for your neighbours and it is always possible to be aware and to give proper warning, preferably a day in advance. Periods of noisy work should be kept to an absolute minimum and you should consider less noisy alternatives.”
I am sorry, but as drafted, it just seems to be saying: “Sorry, m’lud, but if you could possibly see your way clear to just giving us an eensy, weensy bit of notice …. No? … Well sorry for troubling you, sir.” Of course they can give notice, and it always is possible. How could it not be? You certainly don’t want to be putting that idea into their heads.
Declaration of compliance.
At the end of the whole thing, the flat owners are asked to sign a declaration that they’ll comply with the rules, and I want to amend it like this:
“I will ensure that adequate measures are in place to reduce dust & noise at all times to an acceptable level, taking the needs and health of neighbours into account“
My rationale is that simply saying “reduce noise” is meaningless unless you say what you must reduce it to. Noise should be kept to an acceptable level.
It could be that all the suggestions I put forward will be accepted. My own house group, which is my appropriate route for passing on these points as a resident, has put some of them forward but, at this second stage of amendments, it may be difficult to introduce many new amendments. But in the scope of a 21 page booklet, it is quite a small amount of text and much of it is just stating facts. Anyway, I copied my letter to all the other house groups and BA and RCC representatives, so I hope that some of them will also argue for my points, or have their own suggestions to contain the noise issue.
Obviously, it would help if any of you who agree with them, would also try to get these points into the Home Improvements Pack, now, while we still have a window of opportunity.