‘The Right to Light’ is a hugely important piece of British legislation which often gets overlooked or casually dismissed by property owners, architects, and developers.
It could end up being one of the biggest mistakes you ever make, leading to dramatic financial losses and even the complete scuppering of an entire project.
We’ll shine a full beam on the best way of approaching the ‘Right to Light’ law in just a moment, but let’s just take an overview of the legislation and some of the potential implications.
The Ancient Law of Light
For starters, does every property owner have a natural right to protect the amount of sunlight flowing through their windows from your potentially obstructive development?
Not at all.
For starters, the window in question needs to have been receiving unobstructed daylight for a minimum of twenty years.
If you’ve spent much time wandering around the backstreets of London, you may well have come across those elegant ‘Ancient Lights’ signs proudly enshrined under the windows of some of the older properties.
The Ancient Lights Planning Law dates way back to 1663 and was the original version of the Right to Light law, although the principle was much the same.
The signs under the windows simply acted as a warning to developers that these windows have been receiving full sunlight for over twenty years, and so were fully protected by the law.
In other words, if you were planning on erecting a giant Helter Skelter anywhere in their view, you’d better think again.
Fast-forward a few centuries, and the peculiar and distinctive shape of the BBC Broadcasting House in London is actually all down to the ‘Right to Light’ law.
Designed and constructed back in the 1930s, the planning drew complaints from local residents of nearby homes who claimed that the building would dramatically reduce the sunlight passing through their windows.
This inspired the unique asymmetrical sloped design of BBC Broadcasting House which allowed sunlight to pass over the slanting East Wing of the building and through the ‘ancient’ windows of those homes. (Well, maybe not that ancient, but certainly older than twenty years.)
Ironically, the homes in question were demolished shortly afterwards, but it’s hard now to imagine BBC Broadcasting House in any other shape!
Compensation and Injunction
When a potential ‘Right to Light’ claim is completely overlooked during a project development, the costs of the mistake can quickly rack up.
When a court rules in favour of the neighbour making a claim against a completed project, the outcome usually goes one of two ways.
Until very recently, the most likely ruling was the awarding of damages to the claimant, valued on how much the court deems the claimant’s property to have been impacted by the new development.
In a very recent case involving the construction of a new metal staircase leading out from a mixed-use development, the restaurant next door complained that the construction reduced the light which had been flowing into their kitchen windows for more than twenty years.
The county court agreed and judged the compensatory value to be £886.
How exactly they came to such a precise figure is a legal mystery, but you should definitely be prepared to shell out at least somewhere in that region if the ruling goes against you.
However, the second outcome is considerably more costly – an injunction which demands that the offending part of the new development is removed.
Until very recently, injunctions were very rare indeed, but a recent high-profile court battle dubbed ‘The Heaney Case’ seems to have dealt a very troubling new blow to developers.
The construction of a new office block in Toronto Square in Leeds had been overseen by developers HKRUK II (CHC).
However, a ‘Right to Light’ complaint from a neighbour – Marcus Heaney – who owned the adjacent former Penny Yorkshire Bank building, was not resolved before the commercial project was completed.
In fact, the new office block already housed paying tenants when the judge made a surprise injunction ruling, ordering the offending top two floors of the building to be demolished.
HKRUK could have been forgiven for expecting to dig their hands into their pockets for a compensation pay out, but they wouldn’t have been expecting such a devastating move as this.
Whereas a compensatory ruling would have been relatively small, the injunction ruling and the demolition of the two floors is estimated to have cost the developer well over £2 million.
You can’t help thinking that they might just regret going ahead with the project before resolving that little lighting issue with the neighbour.
Making the Right Moves with Right to Light
Bearing all this in mind, it’s now very risky to forge ahead regardless and just assume that grumpy neighbours can be paid off with compensation in the event of them winning a case against you.
A court ruling could now potentially wreck your entire project and the entire budget that you blew on it.
A lot of developers are happy to stick with the 45 Degree Rule which is included in the majority of Councils Residential Design guidelines.
Essentially, the idea here is that you draw an imaginary line at 45 degrees across the boundary from the mid-point of your neighbour’s closest window, and no part of your development should cross this line.
However, this can be a bit of a trap, as the rule is not applied in court rulings on Right to Light.
A more accurate and valuable method is to work more closely with your neighbour on the 50/50 Rule.
This involves ascertaining what percentage of a room will still receive adequate light on a working plane 850mm above the floor. If more than 50% of the room will still receive adequate light, it would generally be ruled in a court that no offence has occurred.
The safest bet of all is not to wait until your neighbour raises the matter in the hope that they don’t really mind about your development plunging them into a pit of darkness.
And ideally, hook up with a Right to Light specialist during the planning stage so that any potential issues can be professionally assessed and dealt with before you roll the dice in a court case.
Otherwise, it could be the most expensive dice roll you ever make…