What is a right to light?
A right to light may exist where natural light passes over one person’s land and enters a window of a building on adjoining land.
Why is this a potential problem for property developers?
If someone has an established right to light it may prevent the adjoining property being developed if that development would infringe the right to light.
How is that established?
Unfortunately there is no standard definition of what will amount to an obstruction of a right to light and each case will depend on its own facts depending on the use of the building which will potentially have its right to light infringed. For instance an arboretum would require more light than an office.
Is this a new thing?
No, rights to light have always existed in English law but have come to prominence recently due to the Court’s interpretation of the law.
In a good way?
Not for property developers. In a recently reported case an injunction was obtained requiring a developer to demolish the top of a newly completed building as its presence infringed an adjoining building’s right to light.
That seems a bit drastic?
In that case the Court considered the following four factors in deciding whether to grant an injunction:
- Was the injury small
- Is it capable of being estimated in money
- Can it be adequately compensated by a money payment and
- Would an injunction be oppressive
The adjoining owner only needed to show one of those grounds and the Judge said:
“It would be wholly wrong for the Court effectively to sanction what has been done by compelling the defendant to take monetary compensation which he does not want”
Is there any way around this?
A right to light must have been enjoyed for a period of 20 years to be a “legal easement”. If the right is obstructed for a year without objection then the 20 year period must start again for a right of light to arise.
You can therefore:
- Create an physical obstruction such as an enormous wall or billboard that infringes the right to light and leave it in place for over a year or
- A rather more practical alternative is to register a light obstruction notice under the Rights of Light Act 1959 which will take effect as a notional obstruction and which must be challenged within a year of registration, failing which the right to light may be defeated.
Are there any other options?
You could always try to buy the building that has the benefit of the right to light, but the current owners would presumably demand a substantial premium to reflect the situation.
This is a complicated area and Boyes Turner’s specialist land development team are uniquely positioned to assist with their expert knowledge of all aspects of property development gained through many years experience of advising property developers on complex land acquisitions and disposals.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.