Robert Davis, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, declared in his register of interests that on 18 September 2014 he accepted the gift of “Breakfast at the Goring Hotel to discuss Rights of Light” with Westminster Property Association.

Ancient lights sign.
Ancients Lights in Newman Passage. Could right to light be a thing of the past for some residents.

A warm breakfast and a hot topic for the City Council and property developers, it seems. And also for residents who may be concerned at some horrendous new building being thrust up against their living rooms by a member of Westminster Property Association.

Just as well that Councillor Bob Davis is on the case and protecting his constituents interests. Or is he?

Page from council booklet.
Is Bob Davis railing against right to light?

Westminster City Council is currently revising its City Management Plan and a section of it currently under consultation until the end of the month is the “Spatial Policy and Implementation” (issued 15 Dec 2014, for comments by 27 February 2015).

In this innocuous-sounding document there is a short chapter on rights to light (pp20-23).

The City Council is concerned that while rights to light are often an important protection for landowners and the amenity of their property, dealing with right to light claims can cause major expense or delay, or even — perish the thought! —  stop development altogether.

I’m no expert on this subject, but compensation is usually paid to property owners — either freeholders of leaseholders. Private and social housing tenants don’t have any chance of a wad of cash coming their way in exchange for giving up their right to light. Only the relatively privileged have the right to light.

Local authorities do have some powers to override rights to light in certain circumstances. Where the council has given planning permission for development it may decide to buy the land “for planning purposes, if this is in the public interest and certain other tests are met”, says the council. “This allows the development to go ahead even if it involves overriding rights like rights to light. Compensation is still payable to the person losing their right.”

The City Council is proposing a new policy — S47 Rights to Light — which states:

The council is committed to ensuring development is delivered which meets its
planning objectives. It will therefore consider, acquiring or appropriating land for planning purposes under sections 237, 226, and 227 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended) and section 122 of the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended) in respect of which planning permission has been granted, to allow developments to proceed.

In considering whether to exercise these powers the council will take the following, among other relevant considerations, into account:

1. Clear evidence that such action is necessary: that the developer has made what the council considers to be its best endeavours to make appropriate indemnity arrangements, to remove the risk of injunction by negotiating the release of rights such as rights of light by voluntary agreement with the relevant affected parties, or making reasonable modifications to the proposal; and that it is demonstrably probable that development is likely to be prevented by injunction/s prohibiting infringements of third party rights.

2. That the council is satisfied on the basis of clear evidence that that taking this action is in the general public interest, having regard to the promotion or improvement of the economic, social and/or environmental well-being of Westminster.

3. Clear evidence of a compelling case in favour of the acquisition or appropriation which would, in the circumstances of each case, be proportionate and justify any interference with private rights.

4. All financial liabilities, legal and other costs of the council incurred in the exercise of these powers will be indemnified in full by the developer.

In some circumstances this may sound reasonable enough if the development is to bring forward much-needed affordable housing or community facilities like schools and community health facilities.

But Westminster Council has earned itself a bit of a reputation for favouring property developers building luxury homes and a poor record on affordable housing. Having breakfast in a Belgravia Hotel with Westminster Property Association to discuss rights to light does not inspire one with confidence.

Revision to Westminster’s City Plan.