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
    My neighbour and i both have boundry walls.
    he has a brick wall and i have vibracrete. i would like to know, do i need his permission to remove my vibe?

    Envor

    • If the vibe wall is on your property then it belongs to you and you can remove it. You are not allowed to do anything to his wall if it is on his property but if it needs plastering or painting then this would be for your cost and you should, as a good neighbour let him know that you are going to do this. This should be done in writing just for the record.

  2. Hi there.

    I have purchased a property that has precast boundary walls already in place. The property is on a downhill slope and the walls facing the street are +-1.5 metres high whilst on the inside of the property they are +-2.1 metres high. My intention is to remove the precast walls and put in proper brick walls. The questions i have are 1) What is the height that i can build up to in the northern suburbs Johannesburg area without need to submit anything for approval? 2) Should i wish to build higher than is allowed and need approval, who do i need to contact for the same? (address and telephone will be brilliant). 3) will the wall height (from a building inspector point of view) be measured from the inside or outside of the property given that i am losing height due to the slope and need to build higher purely for that reason?

    • Most municipalities have boundary wall height restrictions of 1.8m for the street boundary and 2.1 for side boundaries. Any heigher than this will need plans approved before starting to build. You can read more here: boundary-walls-and-fences

  3. 1 High Street
    New Germany

    Good day,

    My neighbour cut back his property next to the boundary wall to within 500mm of the wall (mine as I paid for it and it is on my side of the boundary line). He has not erected a retaining wall. That bank is almost 2 meters deep at the deepest end, and I fear that with the rainy season the remaining bank will collapse and my wall with it.

    What do I do about this please. I have spoken to him several times but he simply ignores me.

    Thank you.

    • That he has not erected a retaining wall is cause for concern. You are quite entitled to contact your local authority and point out to them that “excavations” were done and without a retaining wall there could be a danger of damage to your property. Boundary walls fall under the local authority by-laws and not the national regulations. No property owner may build, erect or excavate anything on their property that could damage a neighbours property.

  4. I just want to know if my street boundary wall needs to be double or single brick

    • It can be either as long as all the spec are complied with. See Part K of SANS 10400 under the subheading freestanding walls. It depends what you are building with (it size of bricks or blocks), whether you are including piers … and much more.

  5. Hi
    I wonder if you could help. I live in Mouille Point and recently had an attempted break-in. I used to feel very safe as my tiny courtyard was surrounded by other properties and nobody had direct access to my house. Now the house behind me is empty and will soon be demolished so building can start so I’m no longer ‘safe’.
    Following the break-in, I had a company come round to discuss security requirements and they suggested spikes between myself and my neighbours and razor wire at the back where the new building will be. When I told my neighbours (just one side) what I was doing, they weren’t happy. The lady has a fear of fire and feels that the spikes will stop her being able to escape (though it is a very high wall anyway and my courtyard has no exit anywhere). I asked the security company if there were any options and they said no, and they will do as the original quote said. I don’t want to have issues with my neighbours but I also need to be able to sleep at night – which I’m not at the moment. I have read the document from Cape Town municipality that discusses the legalities of walls and as far as I can see, spikes are legal and I can have them put on the wall – though this would have to be without the permission of my neighbours.
    I would appreciate if you could confirm.

    Thank you
    Lorna

    • Best if you confirm with the local authority to be sure Lorna. You probably also need to reassure you neighbour that jumping over your wall in case of fire – into a courtyard might be a very bad idea. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

  6. We currently residing in a complex, the challenge we are facing is that our neighbour fence is an easy access for criminal to gain entry into our property. we put up proposal to the owner and they refuse us to be install anything on their boundary wall. should we build this futures into our property 200mm away from the actual boundary will that be acceptable.

    Johannesburg.

  7. Hi once again
    I bought a house in the roodepoort are ( Johannesburg) I’m occupying the premises for approximately 4 months and recently my rear boundary wall fell over due to heavy wind.
    we had a claim submitted to our insurers who rejected the claim on the basis that the wall does not meet building regulations standards ( at the time of being built ), I would like to know when the standards came into place and what they specify the requirements are regarding boundary walls
    i.e height mortar thickness brick force etc

    • Ridwaan it depends what was used to build the wall – i.e. size of brick or block, and whether there were piers included in the design.

  8. We live on a small holding in the Boland Area which is zoned agriculture, although the small holdings are mostly used for residential purposes. The properties are however located in the urban edge. A new neighbour moved in about a year ago and put up cages for wild animals right up against the boundary fence. These cages are constructed from wooden poles and wire mesh with electric fencing on the upper edge, extending roughly 4-5m high. The bottom section is Vibrecrete up to about 2.4m. Plans were submitted and approved for the Vibrecrete fencing. My question is would plans have been required for the animal cages that they erected?

    At the time we were concerned that they were placing these cages on the boundary and so close to a residence (about 3 m from the residence). I have recently been informed that these animals are dangerous but the owner is not willing to consider our issues. in addition, the cages are unsightly and the animals a nuisance. We are now exploring options to require him to move the cages off from the boundary. Do you have any advice for us and thank you for the time you put into a service like this. Much appreciated.

  9. Our neighbour is putting a new layer of grass on his existing lapa
    The grass extends the boundary wall by about 30cm

    Is this allowed?
    All the rain water will now run into my erf.

    • I presume you mean thatch? If this results in water running onto your property then no it is not allowed. The law states that the “owner of any site shall provide suitable means for the control and disposal of accumulated stormwater which may run off from any earthworks, building or paving.”

  10. Would I need planning permission to replace a very large bedroom window with a French door?

    • So long as the width of the opening stays the same. If you make it wider then it may mean putting in new lintols and this then becomes structural changes and then you have to submit plans.

  11. I recently had a incident where my boundary wall at the rear of my property collapsed, I only moved into this property 4 months ago and the boundary wall has been there for the past 20 years upon inspection from my insurers they say it does not meet building standards.
    what are the standards ?
    when were these standards established ?
    when insuring a property can you repudiate a claim on this basis ?

    • You will find the standards for freestanding walls in Part K Walls, which is part of SANS 10400. If the wall was no higher than 1,8 m then no plans would have been required for it. If there were plans then you can check these (they should have been lodged with the local authority) and see if the specs were followed.
      There is a full history of the building regulations on this website. They were initially introduced in 1977 and have been updated from time to time, most recently in 2008, although Part K (the deemed-to-satisfy regs) was only updated in 2011.
      Chances are when the wall was built it did comply with the regs. And they have no right to demand that the standards must be retrospective.

  12. Hi

    I Just bought a Townhouse situated in Goedemoed, Durbanville, in a small estate. The plot size is approximately 360 sqm. On the left there is a single garage (separate from the house), the garage also forms part of the boundary line. The neighbours have there garage next to mine. On the right is the 2 bedroom townhouse and the neighbours have there house right next to mine. So the two join at the boundary.

    My Question: I would like to extend the single garage to the back for about 6 meters. This will be for a separate single bedroom with a bathroom and small kitchenette for when parents come and visit. If the neighbours and body cooperate gave the thumbs up, Can I thus extend the garage on the boundary wall as it currently is, will the local Authority be ok with it? I have seen many house and flats build like that in Boston, Bellville.

  13. Good day Penny

    The one side of my property the vibracrete wall is 2.7m high, I want to raise the back and the other remaining side of my property to the same height, my neighbours are happy with this, Do I require a building plan or do I have to get permission for the City to do this?

    Thanks

    • Our article on Boundary walls states: “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.”You can read more here: boundary-walls-and-fences So yes you will need plans.

  14. Hi

    I have a neighbor who bought the house next door, and because he was building up we did sign the plans, so that a wall could be built to Secure our privacy. I am not happy with what they have done, as you can see by the pictures I have attatched it was a haphazard job, There are big gaps in the wall where they never followed through with the double wall, Some of the double brick work is 3 layers, some four layers and its an absolute abortion. I would really just love some advice as to what I can do as I am really in the dark here.
    I cant even plaster this, nor do I have the money to fix it. I have approached them but to no avail. The owner just keeps telling me we need to compromise. I still don’t know what he means.
    I would really appreciate your assistance in this matter
    Kind regards
    Charesse

    AND

    Subject:
    Walls

    Message:
    Its just very sad, that I have sent 4 emails, and I have yet to get a response. Its really shocking and disgraceful. I really expected better service than this from you.

    • Hi Charesse, This is not a paid service so you cannot expect “service” from something that you get for free. We do this in our spare time to assist people, like yourselves, who end up in a situation that seems not right. We also got caught by our telephone and ADSL service not being moved when this was promised so we are way behind on our responses to everyone.
      To get to your problem, it is definitely not acceptable what your neighbour has done. The “NATIONAL BUILDING REGULATIONS AND BUILDING STANDARDS ACT NO. 103 OF 1977 ( as amended )” states very clearly that any building or structure approved by councils shall NOT devalue neighbours property in any way. I give you the clause 7 that has this:

      7. Approval by Local Authorities in Respect of Erection of Buildings
      (1) If a local authority, having considered a recommendation referred to in section 6(1)(a)-
      (a) is satisfied that the application in question complies with the requirements of this Act and any other applicable law, it shall grant its approval in respect thereof;
      [Para. (a) substituted by s. 4 (a) of Act 62 of 1989.]
      (b) (i) is not so satisfied; or
      (ii) is satisfied that the building to which the application in question relates-
      (aa) is to be erected in such manner or will be of such nature or appearance that-
      (aaa) the area in which it is to be erected will probably or in fact be disfigured thereby;
      (bbb) it will probably or in fact be unsightly or objectionable;
      (ccc) it will probably or in fact derogate from the value of adjoining or neighbouring properties;
      (bb) will probably or in fact be dangerous to life or property,

      I have put the subclause that relates in bold for you. You must put your objection in writing and include the pictures so that it is on record.
      If you do not get any satisfaction from the council you can have a look at our page about the PAJA where you will find two forms that you can download. There are some instructions on the page that you must read that will help you.

  15. If I did read correctly, you are saying that if you want break down an existing boundary wall to build a new wall, then you can do so without a plan. As long it is no longer then 2.1m

    • Hi Dre from Gauteng, It depends what the original plans had on them. Usually no plans are required when you rebuild what was on those plans. If you change what was on the original plans then just a note to them in writing could be all that you need, this you should call and check with them. The height in most municipalities now is 2.1 meters.

   
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