The extraordinary case of the flying lorry and the 'killer' building

Jason Hunter, Partner in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, property litigation team.
Jason Hunter
4 min Read

Those of you who have minutely followed our articles and blogs over the last few years will have spotted that I like to ride my bike – a lot. I race in time trials, I ride around most of Surrey and Sussex, I’ve ridden to MIPIM and I commute to and from Central London.

Colleagues and friends know that about me – so much so, that their go-to small talk is to ask me about it. A frequent question is about the hazards of riding around London. That’s fair enough – there are serious hazards: vehicles, pedestrians, other cyclists, rain, hail, potholes, recessed drains covers, rain covered white lines. None of those are unique to London, of course! There are one or more incidents every time I ride.

But the hazard I have been thinking about a lot recently is wind.

Out in the open, the wind is usually consistent and predictable. You’re riding into it, or with it. When racing, you look out for gates and openings in hedges and fences, because you’ll usually get a blast into your front wheel which can be pretty scary riding a bike at 30mph or so.

But in town it is different. You can see most of the other problems and adjust for them, but not the wind. Riding through developments, one can feel the wind-tunnelling effect. But it swirls too – so you get hit by it unexpectedly, and forcefully.

Why was I thinking about wind and property development recently? Well, obviously there was a lot of it about with three storms in a week.

But I was particularly thinking about it because, riding up Fetter Lane the other morning, my wife was blown off her bike by a very strong blast of air which seemed to come at her from a building across the road. It wasn’t a case of just being blown over. She was lifted off the bike and landed on the pavement on her hands and knees. The blast of air was that strong. Happily, she was not seriously hurt.

During Storm Eunice, part of the roof of the O2 in London was ripped off (Storm Eunice: O2 arena closes as roof shredded in high winds - BBC News).

An interesting post on LinkedIn caught my eye. The author used a photo showing the O2 from further away, and remarked on the presence of two large buildings close to the damaged area. He suggested that the presence of the buildings (constructed after the dome) might have had something to do with the damage. A large number of comments agreed. It is fair to say a large number also commented on the materials used to construct the dome, their expected lifespan, the impact of light and the environment generally on their rate of deterioration and so on. Perhaps the cause will be found to be a combination of such things.

All this reminded me of the tragic case of Dr Edward Slaney. In 2011, he was killed in Leeds by a lorry which landed on him. Witnesses described the lorry having been lifted up and thrown across the road. It took a long time to work out what had happened. At the heart of the problem was a large building known as Bridgewater Place (Bridgewater Place 'wind tunnel caused Leeds injuries' - BBC News). Its size and design had an impact on how air and wind behaved. It seemed that air currents would flow down the side of the building, accelerating all the way and then hitting the ground. The resultant blast hit the lorry that day, which then fell on Dr Slaney. In due course, a scheme of work was implemented to disrupt or baffle those air currents and so make the area safer. Unsurprisingly there were prolonged, costly disputes about the case and responsibility.

Did something like that happen to my wife the other day? Possibly. If she had been injured, could she have made a claim? Again, possibly. There might have been a health & safety issue; there might have been a public nuisance. Working out who to claim against would be a challenge, but the building developer/owner would probably be first in the firing line.

Developments disrupt their surroundings. Super basements can divert water courses, tall buildings can cause dangerously fast air currents. Such problems are not new ('Killer towers': how architects are battling hazardous high-rises | Architecture | The Guardian). Despite the pandemic, cities are still going to be places where people want to live and work. So there will always be a need for more buildings. With space at a premium, they are going to have an impact on someone.

I am not going to dive into the climate change debate – I have my views, and you have yours – but there is no doubt that, for whatever reason, the weather is more unpredictable. That there will be unpredictable weather is, as it were, predictable, and so is the possibility of further development in close proximity to buildings being planned now. Should this be catered for? If there are more problems, I am sure someone will argue so.

I have been knocked off my bike by a car, by a van, by a dog, and by pedestrians. One of the best bits about my job is getting to know how buildings work. So, it would be incredibly upsetting if I got knocked off my bike by one.

Blogs Real Estate wind nuisance Storm Eunice Bridgewater place