Neo Bankside v Tate Modern: A tale of two windows

An ancient "ancient lights" sign in London, Matt Brown, Flickr

Do panoramic views come with a privacy price tag? It’s a question that Justice Anthony Mann pondered last month when he ruled in favour of Tate Modern, after residents of the Neo Bankside development unsuccessfully attempted to sue the gallery.

For five apartment owners in the Neo Bankside development adjacent to Tate Modern’s viewing platform, a room with a view had become a fishbowl. The owners claimed the recently inaugurated viewing deck infringed their privacy – and attempted to get part of the deck closed.

Tate suggested they put up curtains; Mann ruled that the owners’ views “come at the price in terms of privacy”.

There are many reasons to revel in the fate of Neo Bankside’s case against the Tate Modern. First, the luxury development undeniably raised housing prices in the area and shirked commitments to build affordable housing. 

But how do you actually determine the monetary value of a view? The truth is that nobody really wants to say. There’s a constant gurgle of real estate articles detailing the value of a view – how prices increase by floor, what direction gets good light, the value of a corner unit.

Yet estate agents are cagey about how they make their pricing assessments. Alex Carr, residential development partner at Knight Frank (the agent responsible for Neo Bankside’s initial sale), said there’s a premium on “that postcard view of London” – but wouldn’t give me a figure or formula for calculating the cost of a good view.

Apartment views are massive signifiers of status. They’re a creature of speculative real estate with little use value. Estate agents don’t want to put a price on views because they’re worth whatever someone will pay.

So in an effort to spite every swanky apartment view on both sides of the Thames, I’m pursuing a far less glamorous way of thinking about views: indemnity insurance.

Let’s talk about the “right to light”. An act of 1832 secured city residents’ right to natural sunlight. If new developments threatened to obstruct the light in their homes, residents could claim damages or seek an injunction to prevent construction.

Though right to light might today seem archaic (it was originally determined by the equivalent number of candles needed for to read comfortably), it lives on, illuminated, to this day.

In fact, you can still spot “ancient lights” signs under window sills in older buildings throughout London (if you’re interested there’s a map of them here). These served as passive aggressive, Jenny Holzer-style reminders from agitated 19th century homeowners to prevent new constructions blocking their light.

As cities became denser, right to light was a way to protect existing occupants, particularly those living in older homes. But as Aidan Cosgrave, a property surveyor specialising in right to light explains, savvy insurance brokers started selling right to light indemnity insurance to property developers to offset costs they might accrue for blocking someone else’s light.

A major court case in 2010 upped the stakes. The case, following a dispute between developer HKRUK and property owner Marcus Heaney, became notorious among industry insiders.

HKRUK built an office block in downtown Leeds without first addressing Heaney’s right to light. A judge subsequently ordered part of the development to be torn down two years after completion. It set a precedent for developers blocking another building’s light in the years to come.

For right to light experts like Cosgrave, the Tate Modern case could be a similar touchstone.

The right to privacy is a human right, and isn’t totally analogous with right to light. But it’s not difficult to imagine owners claiming their right to privacy as a way of protecting property values.

Conversely, London enshrines a set of “viewing corridors” to be used for planning purposes, most famously the vantage point on St. Paul’s Cathedral. As Ed Jefferson observes, this antiquated stipulation has shaped the city that we know today.

When cities densify, so do the chances of being overlooked by other competitors. As speculative real estate further shapes cities like London, both developers and property owners will seek to insulate themselves against the risks of the market.

So this isn’t just about disputes over privacy or light, but a war between competing property rights. When housing is a commodity, things like light, views and privacy also become market commodities.  

While Neo Bankside’s case was unsuccessful, the threat of private property owners imposing their rights to privacy on collective urban space is here to stay.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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