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.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Beyond the wall, with John Lanchester

A sea wall in Japan. Image: Getty.

This week it’s another live episode, of sorts. In early April I was lucky enough to chair an event at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

John was mostly there to promote his latest novel, The Wall, a “cli-fi” book about a Britain trundling on after catastrophic climate change has wiped out much of the planet. In the past he’s also written about other vaguely CityMetric-y topics like the housing crisis and the tube - so he’s a guest I’ve been hoping to get on for a while, and was kind enough to allow us to record our chat for posterity and podcasting purposes.

Incidentally, I didn’t find a way of turning the conversation to the tube. We do lose ten minutes to talking about Game of Thrones, though.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

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

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