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Coal Holes & Vaults - Our Member’s Potential Responsibilities

Many older properties in Soho have access to vaults which extend under the street, or incorporate cellars with ‘coal holes’, the latter being the old-fashioned way of delivering coal directly into a cellar!

Some properties have access from inside a building into a vault, and some have access via an external staircase - where the vault is separated from the main building structure. Nearly all extend under the street and, hence, under the public highway itself.

There have been a few recent well documented cases (in Poland Street and in D’Arblay Street) where the vaults have begun to leak, either due to the road surface or sub-base being eroded or damaged, or because the structure of the vault itself was failing and in need of repair. We know that such cases are on the rise and it is important to understand your potential liabilities.

If a problem arises, the cause of the problem should be investigated by a qualified Structural Engineer, and a pre-cautionary approach taken to safety if a structural fault is suspected. In the case of both Poland Street and D’Arblay Street, the roads were closed to traffic due to the threat of collapse.

As a first step we would recommend that you ask your solicitor to check the terms of your lease and exact extent of your demise. The landlord is usually responsible for anything ‘structural’ affecting the external envelope of the building (including vaults), unless it is some form of ‘full repairing lease’, in which case your own buildings insurers might need to be notified.

The tenant should then liaise with the building owners to get a qualified building surveyor to take a look at things urgently and to assess what needs to be done.

Then a dialogue can begin with the City Council. It can only be determined who will be liable for any necessary remedial works until the cause and extent of the problem is fully known.

For example, there might be 2 issues – damage to the road and its subbase, which the council will usually fix but, also, a deeper structural issue, which might be causing the damage to the road surface, which the building owner could be liable to repair.

Having appropriate buildings insurance and early professional advice is of course key in these situations.

some coal hole covers

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