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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.