Strategic Planning of Boundary Walls and Fences

steel fence

A steel palisade fence on the street side boundary.

Boundary walls and fences are one of the most controversial topics facing homeowners. We are constantly contacted by people from all parts of South Africa who want advice – or have some sort of problem – relating to boundary walls and fences – often because neighbours have erected something that is offensive or clearly illegal.

There are laws that relate to boundary walls and fences, but more importantly, you need to check the boundary walls and fences policy followed by your local authority. Ultimately what you can and cannot do is up to them.

Boundary Walls and Fences and the Law

The two most important issues here are the position of boundary walls and fences, and ownership.

Positioning Boundary Walls and Fences

All properties are surveyed and pegged when land is zoned for residential use. But as soon as the land is built on, generally the pegs are removed. This is why it is so important to ensure that boundary walls and fences are correctly positioned in the first place. If there is a dispute between neighbours at any stage (and they could be completely different parties to those who owned the two properties when the wall was built), it may be necessary to get a land surveyor to resurvey the property according to the official diagram that is lodged with the Surveyor General in Pretoria.

If you decide to build a wall or erect a fence on the boundary, you may do so provided it is on your property. And this includes the foundationswhich of course will be wider and longer than the wall itself. The structure will then belong to you. [See minor building work for walls and fences that do not require plans.]

The law also protects the structure from any action that may threaten its stability. For instance your neighbour may not dig down next to your wall on his/her side if this is likely to wash away the earth if and when there are heavy rains. If he/she does some sort of excavation, they will need to erect a retaining wall (which will require plans) or some other structure that provides lateral support to the wall.

Ownership of Boundary Walls and Fences

Often, however, neighbours agree to share the costs of boundary walls and fences, in which case ownership is also shared.

In the absence of proof that a boundary wall is wholly on one or other property, ownership is usually presumed to be shared. Some local authorities state that each side is then owned by the property owner on each side; others say that the wall is owned jointly. If ownership is shared either way, neither owner may do anything to the wall – ie they may not raise it, lower it or break it down – without the other neighbour’s permission. If the structure is damaged in any way, both must share the cost of repair.

There are different laws that apply in agricultural areas (farmland).

Local Authority Boundary Walls and Fences Policies

While every local authority has its own policy for boundary walls and fences, there are many similarities. The information give here is based on the official policy of the City of Cape Town, drawn from a document that was published in 2009.

The official document Boundary Walls and Fences Policy acknowledges the fact that all fences and boundary walls that front onto public streets are “highly visible” and therefore have a direct bearing on the character as well as what they term the “visual amenity of neighbourhoods”.

Driven by an increased need for security, more and more homeowners are tending to install security devices on top of boundary walls and fences in an uncontrolled and haphazard manner. These devices take various forms and include different types of electric fencing, as well as razor wire, barbed wire and various kinds of ugly (though effective) spikes. Because of this, the City of Cape Town devised its policy in 2009, formally identifying which security devices may be utilized – and which should not be permitted.

At this stage, the City of Cape Town’s Building By-laws prohibited the use of certain materials including galvanized iron sheeting and asbestos sheeting (though it should also be noted that no asbestos materials may be used for building anywhere in the country), and barbed wire on street boundaries, but they did not make any provision for controlling security devices. While historically, the Occupational Health and Safety Act controlled the technical aspects of the installation of electric fences, there was no provision in the City’s Scheme Regulations to control the installation of security devices.

Their Boundary Walls and Fences Policy attempts to control the appearance of boundary walls and fences and the installation of security devices on top of walls and fences. They also point out that this policy precedes the formulation of a by-law.

The City of Cape Town’s Legal Mandate

As they state, boundary walls are considered to form part of municipal planning, which is a local authority competency in terms of Part B of Schedule 5 of South Africa’s Constitution. Note that this is why the decisions relating to boundary walls and fences are ultimately left to the local authority to decide.

In Terms of Section 156 of the Constitution, municipalities (or local authorities, including the various Cities – specifically Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban etc.) have the power to make and administer by-laws that will ensure the effective administration of all the various matters they have the right to administer – in this case, policies that relate to boundary walls and fences.

There is no provision made in the National Building Regulations to control the appearance and height of boundary walls. For this reason, control of the appearance and height of boundary walls has become part of municipal planning country-wide.

Rationale and Justification for By-laws Relating to Boundary Walls and Fences

Complaints Relating to Safety

In the absence of a standard policy throughout the city, or relevant by-laws dealing with these matters, The City Council stated that it was receiving complaints from members of the community concerning safety issues surrounding the installation of electric fences in particular. Specifically, concerns related to the safety of children and accidental contact with the live wires.

Complaints had also been received about the use of unsightly materials and the adverse impact that this has on the character and visual amenity of certain areas.

The document noted that the high crime rate was a concern to the community and that the protection of life and property had become a priority in most, if not all neighbourhoods of the City.

Boundary Walls and Fences Explained

A Definition of Boundary Walls and Fences

For the purposes of managing and assessing proposals in terms of their “new” policy, the City defined a boundary wall or fence as “any wall, fence or enclosing structure erected on or next to a property boundary and any other structures (including but not limited to security devices, for example spikes, electric fencing, barbed or razor wire) affixed to or on top of it.”

Specifications for Boundary Walls and Fences

There is now a list of specifications for boundary fences and walls that are:

  • located on street boundaries,
  • located on boundaries of public open space,
  • and lateral boundaries.

These must comply with the following requirements:

  • Solid boundary walls may not be any higher than shall 1.8 m on street boundaries, and no higher than 2,1 m on lateral boundaries.
  • Palisade-type fences may not be higher than 2.1 m on either street or lateral boundaries.
  • Fences may not be higher than 2,1 m on street boundaries.

[Note:  The National Building Regulations state that walls and fences to a maximum height of 1,8 m are regarded as “minor building work” and do not require plans. So whilst the City of Cape Town allows walls and fences to be a maximum of 2,1 m, unless they rule otherwise, plans will be required.]

  • The District Manager has the right to relax these height requirements at his/her discretion.
  • At least 40% of the surface area of any street boundary walls, including gates, if these are provided, must be visually permeable – ie you need to be able to see through close to half of the wall and gate.
  • Boundary walls and fences must be measured from the existing level of the ground that abuts the wall or fence. If the level of the ground on opposite sides of the fence or wall are not equal, the height should be measured from the higher of the two sides. If soil is retained by a boundary wall, the maximum permitted height of the retained soil is 2,1 m. This should be measured from the natural ground level in front of the wall. A balustrade wall not exceeding 1 m in height is permitted above the level of the retained soil.

[Note: Plans are required for retaining walls.]

  • Where two intersecting street boundaries of any property enclose an angle of less than 135 degrees, the maximum permitted boundary wall height above street level within 4, 5 m of the intersection of the boundaries is 1 m.
  • Electrified fencing and other forms of security fencing must also comply with these requirements.

Important Provisions of the NBR
and Building Standards Act

The provisions of Section 4 of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act, No 103 of 1977 (ie the legislation), are applicable which means that prior written authority must be obtained from the City when erecting a boundary wall or fence. More specifically, Section 4 of the Act relates to: “Approval by local authorities of applications in respect of erection of buildings”, and states that people must:

  1. get written approval from the local authority after plans and specifications have been submitted to the local authority
  2. submit all applications in writing on the form supplied by the local authority
  3. supply the name and address of the person applying for permission to build together with the necessary plans, specifications etc. required by the National Building Regulations and Building Standards
  4. be aware that anyone who contravenes the Act will be guilty of an offense and liable (if convicted) to pay a maximum fine of R100 per day for every day spent erecting and building illegally.

The Building Control Officer has indicated that the provisions of Section 13 of Act 103 dealing with work of a minor nature are also applicable.

Note that this is not a reference to the section in the Act that refers to minor building work. 

Section 13 of the Act relates to “Exemption of buildings from national building regulations and authorization for erection”, and it states that any building control officer may exempt property owners from the need to submit plans or authorize erection of a building in accordance with specific conditions and directions.

Note that the City of Cape Town has seen fit to draw attention to this section in terms of walls and fences (not only buildings as such).

Sources

Boundary Walls and Fences Policy. City of Cape Town, Directorate: Strategy & Planning; Department of Planning & Building Development Management; Development Policy & Processes Branch. January 2009.

Reader’s Digest Family Guide to The Law in South Africa. The Reader’s Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Ltd. Cape Town. 1986.

  447 Responses to “Boundary Walls and Fences”

Comments (447)
  1. Hi I want to extend my garage so we can fit my wife’s car in behind mine. This will bring the new garage 500mm past my boundary wall but not onto the pavement or anywhere near the road. Do I need to get plans passed or can I go ahead?
    Regards Derrick

    • Hi Derrick, All alterations and building work need plans and if you are crossing any boundaries and or building lines you will have to get further permission from the surrounding neighbours as well.

  2. My neighbour is busy removing the fence and has gone to the extent of removing shrubs that are my side of the fence. I assume he should have told me if whatever he wants to built would reqiure him to remove the fence. This is a new neighbour and I have fears he could entrench into my property due to lack of knowledge of regulatory laws pertaining to building walls and fences. I wish to get an advice on this issue.

    • Hi Nokuzola, You must try and find the pegs at the corners of your property so that you can see where your boundary lines are. Without this you cannot guess if he is building on your property or not. If you cannot find any pegs then you might have to call in a surveyor to reset the pegs for you so that you are sure. One other thing is that he is allowed to have his wall foundations that are underground extend into your property so long as the wall itself does not go over the boundary.

  3. Good day Penny! I built a boundary wall of up to 1.5m high around the yard. I only have 1 neighbor for now. They requested to build a garage from our wall and we refused because is close to our kitchen door. They did anyway. They built a garage on top of my wall. The wall is about 1.8m away from my kitchen door. And above 2.1m high. Is this legal… Kindly advise

    • Each suburb has its own by-laws as to how close to the boundary you can build. They are certainly not allowd to just use yourwall to build on. Contact the local building inspector and ask them to inspect this.

  4. Hi Penny

    I have a twofold question: 1. Two years ago I had building work done to convert existing domestics quarters and the adjacent garage into a garden cottage. A doorway was created in the shared wall to link the two spaces. Also the garage door opening was bricked in and a wooden front door fitted. The former garage is now a kitchenette (with sink) and lounge area. 2. At the same time, a garden shed was built by bricking in an alcove created by the existing exterior walls of the house and placing an IBR roof on the structure so that it forms something of a ‘lean to’. A toilet was also installed in the shed using the shared waste pipe that leads out of the adjacent bathroom inside the house. Do either (or both) of these building renovations require council planning and permission? Many thanks in advance.

    • Absolutely! Each and every one of the alterations and additions that you have done need plans and approval before you start to build. You are going to have to negotiate the plans with the council as you are certainly going to get a fine. You should do this because if you maybe want to sell at a later stage they will find out about the illegal alterations and fine you then.

  5. Hi,
    I live in Amanzimtoti and wish to add a 1.8 m concrete block boundary wall between me and my neighbour. My neighbour has no objection and my contractor advised that I do not require any municipal or other approvals. Is this correct.?

    I also wish to do a retaining walls within my property. How high can I build it without municipal approvals.?

    Your kind feedback will be appreciated.
    Peet

  6. morning,

    I need some advise I live in Witpoortjie Johannesburg and my neighbour has put up a store room against my boundary wall. Isnt there a restriction on this? How far from the wall is he allowed to put up this store room.

  7. Hi…we are in the process of moving our garage to the boundary and the neighbour didn’t want us to remove the vibracrete…which we accepted, but now it turns out that the vibracrete is on our side of the property…the peg is clearly on the right of the vibracrete…What are our rights now? can we take down the vibracrete even if they have objections?

    They are not happy at all…I have told them that they are welcome to put the vibracrete back up, but on their property…

    Appreciate any feedback.

    Thanks Naeema

    • Hi Naeema, The first thing is to make sure that the peg is in the correct place. Sometimes the peg can get moved when builders think that it gets in the way of their work. You can try and find the other pegs on your boundary and if you have a site plan, you can get this fron the council, then you can measure out to see if it is possibly in the right spot. The only other way is to ask a surveyor to come and reset the pegs for you. Then when you know this there can be no arguments. You must also check who paid for the wall and when it was built. If it is your wall then you can take it down and offer them the option of putting it back up.

  8. Hi, I purchased a house where we a 1.5m boundary wall that is collapsing towards my side. It has separated from the a joining neighbours wall. I have had my insurance asses the structure but has been informed that the wall is collapsing due to the neighbours tree that’s against the wall. I spoke to the neighbours, since last year December 2013, and made numerous calls to them, last I was told their insurance has approved their claim but they don’t have the time to take off from work to get it repaired. I have kids and pets, and IU am very worried that this could be life threatening and they I not taking this seriously. What can I do, to get this urgently repaired. I stay in Gauteng, Centurion.

    • This is a legal matter and the only way to get this done is to put the neighbour to terms in writing giving him a deadline to rectify the problem. If you do not get any response then you will have to ask an attorney for assistance.

  9. I have an existing vibracrete wall on my corner property and the wall is about 2 meters high with an electrical fence on top (800mm). I want to remove every 4th vibracrete pole and replace it with a sturdy brick pillar and then connect the vibracrete to those pillars.
    The current perimeter wall (facing the street), which came with the house, does not comply with the 40% visually permeable bylaw I read about above. I am assuming this law came in after the original wall was built. If I make these alterations will I have to comply with the 40% law and must I get council approval to make these alterations ?

    • Not all municipalities have this bylaw as far as I know. But if you are changing a vibracrete wall and replacing it with brick in parts, and it is above 1,8 m you are going to need plans.

  10. Hi,

    Thank you for graciously giving your advice. I stay in Durban and overlook the sea. Both myself and my neighbour have decks facing directly out to sea. Its in a complex so we are reasonably close to each other. About 3m. I would like to erect a wooden screen between us, that will be 1.8m high from their ground level. This is for the purpose of privacy.Their deck is probably about half a metre higher than their ground level. Would this be fine/legal?

    • It sounds okay to me, but you should get your neighbour’s consent PLUS make sure the complex regs don’t disallow this.

  11. i recently moved into a home, there is a watcrete fence between my property and next door. the neighbor
    complained to me that the previous owner had back filled soil against his watcrete fence and it is bowing. his fence is at max hight from his garden but my land is about 1m above his. he now wants me to remove the soil against his fence. if I do this there will be a gap of about 0.5 m. can I request that he move the fence off the boundary line and put it on his side of the line

    • No Zane you can’t. You need to dig away and build some sort of retaining wall which will, technically (and legally) require plans.

  12. I live on a panhandle property in Westville, Durban. My left neighbour’s property was built first and fenced by them. Due to the topography, their property is higher than ours by about 1m. The fence, and the retaining wall on which it sits, that they have constructed along the driveway is now starting to tilt. Also, the fence further further towards the back of the property is starting to tilt because of trees on their side.

    I have asked them on serval occasions to remedy the problem but they have not responded. I have recently learned that they secretly sold the house. I’m unsure as to whether the property has been transferred. How do I now address the situation and do Indo that with the new owners or the old?

    • Vikesh you will have to deal with the current owners of the property – and this may now open a huge can of worms. The main problem though might be that whoever developed your house may not have complied with the law. For instance, you may not dig along the land along your boundary if it is likely that this will result in the soil on your neighbour’s side being washed away by rain. Also your excavations must not threaten the stability of any part of any building on his land (according to the Reader’s Digest Family Guide to the Law in SA).
      Re your neighbour selling “secretly”; there is no load that says a neighbour has to divulge a sale.

  13. Hi Penny
    my neighbour built an enclosed braai area on the boundary. The perimeter wall was extended with glass bricks from 2.2 to 2.8 meters, a roof was added up and gutters are on my side over the wall. Could he have build it without my permission ?
    Thanks
    Marco

  14. Hi, i have a low wall around the front perimeter of my house, about 1m high. Is this considered as a perimeter/boundary wall? I was asked this question on a household contents insurance question. My backyard has a vibocrete wall.

  15. My neighbor has built an outhouse out of brick and is using the wall separating me and my neighbor as part of their outhouse. ie their building sits right against the wall between us. Is this legal?

    • This sounds like an illegal building. Depending on what area you are and the size of your erf. Below 500sqm building up to the boundary is allowed. But any building needs plans and the council would not approve plans for a building built onto a boundary wall without the other neighbours permission. Write to your local council planning department and ask them to investigate.

   
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