Territorial watersBuilders and developers seem to get away with murder and in practice it is best to stop any errors or oversights in their tracks. Certainly, relying on the council or the courts to reverse excesses once they have been ‘set in stone’ rarely works.

Keeping an eye on the builders requires vigilance, and in the autumn of 2007 there were three of us on the job. In this instance the threat came from a house being built just at the back of my neighbour’s garden and, on that particular morning, the lot fell to me. The house had just reached the first floor. When I looked out of my study window and aligned its new height with the top of a nearby wall, I was almost certain that the height at this stage did not accord with the plans. After checking my sightings, I calculated that if the building continued uncorrected the final roof level would be two feet higher than had been approved by the local council. So we, and others, stood to lose part of our mid-morning sun and, after years of battling with the developer via the council for this very vista, that would clearly be unjust.

I had been watching the building closely and the error must have occurred on the previous day. Accordingly, the concrete would not yet be set. Immediately I went round to see the site manager, a tall muscular man, pointed out the error and asked that yesterday’s two extra courses of breeze blocks be removed. The manager, who I noticed was working from a now-defunct plan, denied any wrong-doing and politeness soon gave way to a rather blunter exchange. But worse was to come. When I pointed out his use of outdated information he became threatening, swore, pushed me out of his office and essentially frog-marched me off the site. For someone of my age, being physically manhandled is a horrible, not to say a frightening, experience.

I phoned the council to tell them of the building’s extra height and then, trembling and distraught, set off for a meeting in central London. When I returned later that afternoon, to my great relief the two additional courses had been removed but not without ruining what otherwise might have been a pleasant day.

By luck we had managed to influence the builders but the whole episode was very perturbing. Last week, by chance, I was presented with a very much more pleasant way to have my say in the construction world. This time the building is sited directly behind our house. I have been watching it take shape, and while my observations were initially designed for policing the development, the ingenuity of its creation has provided me with great pleasure (see ‘The house that Joe Watched‘; 26 December 2012). I have met Bob, the current site manager, several times to ask him specifics about the plans and he has been most courteous, even saying I should pop by if ever I had any concerns. Indeed, he has lived up to the kite mark on this company’s hoarding proclaiming ‘considerate construction’. Nevertheless, it is the case that first, he could leave at any time, and second, disputes can always arise regardless. So when Bob knocked on our door to make a request concerning his water supply, I agreed immediately. Here was my opportunity.

The building site’s water had been cut off unexpectedly over Christmas and to re-establish a new and definitive supply might take months. Bob’s questions flowed: Had I noticed that work on the site had almost stopped? Did I know how having running water for cups of tea, washing hands and helping with certain toiletry demands was essential – even an employment issue? Could they take water from the tap in our back garden which abuts directly onto the site? After some speedy negotiations we reached agreement, and three days later two very considerate plumbers (they took off their shoes when they walked through the house) came round and fixed the necessary piping. The building work resumed soon after.

So far all is well, but if any difficulty were to arise or relationships were to go awry, all I have to do is threaten to turn off the tap in my back garden. Throughout history the supply of water has conferred power on those in control of it, and this very power has just fallen to me. How very convenient! But it would be so much pleasanter if these sanctions were never needed, and on current evidence they won’t be. But, of course, Bob will have known that.

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