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Historic right to light law under threat

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New reforms could abolish rights of light for almost three million homes as part of government plans to further eliminate barriers to development

Government law advisors have launched a consultation on changes to the historic legislation which would end the automatic prescription of rights to light for buildings when they become more than 20 years old.

Some 2.8 million homes built in the last two decades could be impacted by the reform however existing rights held by properties would remain.

The consultation aims to remove challenges facing major developments which restrict neighbouring buildings’ light by removing uncertainty in the current system.

The review – which has ministerial backing – represents the latest attempt to kick start development by easing legislative burdens. Planning guidelines and building regulations are also under review after being condemned by government for hampering economic growth.  

Dating from 1611, right to light protects daylight entering buildings which has been constant for 20 years.

The independent Law Commission – a statutory body which reviews ‘unduly complicated’ law for government – has mooted a range of reforms which could eventually be passed to lawmakers. 

Its consultation document refers to a recent legal battle in Leeds where a developer was ordered to partially demolition a finished project (pictured) after a neighbour complained they had lost light. The developer settled the dispute without demoltion taking place.

The Law Commission has proposed removing right to light by prescription and a new legal framework to clarify when damages could apply, avoiding repeats of the Leeds debacle.

It also proposes a statutory notice period limiting the time neighbours can launch legal action against developments and removing the entitlement to protection on the basis of ‘long use’.

The report said: ‘It has always been possible for landowners to threaten to prevent a development that may infringe a right to light, or even to have it demolished, by asking the court to grant an injunction unless a significant payment is made for the release of the right.’

It added: ‘We want to ensure that rights to light do not act as an unnecessary constraint on development. The availability of modern, good quality residential, office and commercial space is important to the success of increasingly dense, modern town and city centres, and to the economy more generally.’

A DCLG spokesman said: ‘This is a consultation by the independent Law Commission, which is seeking to update and improve confusing and fragmented land law and legal rulings which date back to 1832. The right to light is entirely separate from planning law. Such proposed land law reform is no different from the Party Wall Act 1996 which consolidated complex legislation on land boundaries that dated back to the 17th Century.’

He added: ‘The Government recognizes how important natural light is to people and is absolutely committed to the protection of their rights to it.’

The consultation closes on 16 May.

Key proposals: The Law Commission review of rights to light

(1) We propose that for the future it should no longer be possible to acquire rights to light by prescription.

(2) We propose the introduction of a new statutory test to clarify the current law on when courts may order a person to pay damages instead of ordering that person to demolish or stop constructing a building that interferes with a right to light.

(3) We propose the introduction of a new statutory notice procedure, which requires those with the benefit of rights to light to make clear whether they intend to apply to the court for an injunction (ordering a neighbouring landowner not to build in a way that infringes their right to light), with the aim of introducing greater certainty into rights to light disputes.

(4) We propose that the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal should be able to extinguish rights to light that are obsolete or have no practical benefit, with payment of compensation in appropriate case.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • As an Architect with over 40 years' experience in Private Practice I am totally in favour of rationalisation and clarification of Rights of Light issues. The current situation, where windows to non-habitable rooms enjoy the same rights as habitable rooms is in my view unsustainable. The uncertainty over, and lack of apparent rules in, determining appropriate levels of damages where rights have been affected need thoroughly overhauling, simplifying and clarification. This will hopefully ensure that there is greater clarity of the rights for all parties to avoid often unnecessary litigation and extensive delays to construction whilst defending reasonable and legitimate rights where they exist.
    Patrick Russell AA Dip RIBA

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