HC Deb 01 March 1867 vol 185 cc1243-6

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the existing state of the Law as regards the right of access of light and air to ancient windows, and to the necessity of providing by Legislative enactment some means by which owners of property, under proper regulations, and on payment of compensation, if necessary, may be enabled to increase the height of their buildings. It appeared that so far back as the reign of Richard the First it was anticipated that the City of London would become overcrowded with buildings, and from that time till 1834 there was a custom which enabled the owner of a house in the City to raise it to any height he pleased, notwithstanding his doing so might diminish the access of light and air to adjoining tenements, A jury of twelve aldermen, with the Lord Mayor as Assessor, were to sit and determine the rights of the parties. But in 1834 an Act was passed which gave the owners of property a right to a perpetual injunction to prevent any diminution of the access of light and air to their property. This question was one of considerable importance, owing to the constantly increasing pressure for increased extent and accommodation of buildings in the metropolis, and the consequent necessity that was felt more and more of increasing the height and improving the character of ancient buildings. The law as it at present stood was such that persons anxious to improve and heighten their buildings were at the mercy of their immediate neighbours, and most extortionate demands were commonly made when any alterations of this character were contemplated. When the Act of 1834 came into operation the difficulties which now existed began to arise, and it has been held by Lord Westbury that when any window of a dwelling-house shall have been actually enjoyed for a period of twenty years without interruption, the right to such window shall be absolute and indefeasible. The difficulties to the public arose in this way. Supposing a man to have only a small window, admitting only a comparative small quantity of light, and another, in order that he might alter his house or premises, wanted him to enlarge his light, the law said you shall do nothing that can compel a man to enlarge his window unless he chooses. Suppose a person wishing to build said to the owner of a small window, "If you will enlarge your window, or do anything that will bring in rays of light, and will at the same time allow me to erect a building near your property, then you will not suffer from any diminution of light and air, but will obtain a greater access of them." The owner of the small window might refuse unless a very large pecuniary compensation was given to him. A case came before Vice Chancellor Wood, and the answer given by the Court was, the plaintiff cannot be compelled to make any alteration in his house to enable another to deal more advantageously with his own property. On that decision a party owning a small window could make terms advantageous to himself. In a work recently published, he found in the preface this extraordinary statement— Since the demand has arisen for now and enlarged buildings, the right to window lights has become of considerable pecuniary value. That was to say, a person having a small light was not held to have it as an enjoyment for himself, but as of largo pecuniary value; because, unless a large pecuniary compensation was given, he would go to the Court of Chancery, and prevent any one erecting a building which should have the effect of diminishing that light. But the law extended not only to adjoining property, but to property on the other side of the street. Supposing a street to be twenty, twenty-five, or thirty feet wide, if it could be shown that by any building on one side the area of light did not come at its original angle, an application could be made to the Court of Chancery to restrain anything from being done, and there were cases where half a street had been stopped from anything like improvement. Some few years ago it was necessary for a man to go to a Court of Law to have his rights determined by a jury; but now a Court of Equity could deal with the legal rights of the parties, and a person might obtain a perpetual injunction. The Building Act did not provide any safety-valve; for even supposing an order to be made by the district surveyor, a man might still apply to the Court of Chancery. Suppose two building plots, of 100 square yards each, were purchased by two persons, and that one of the plots let very quickly to builders, while no buildings were raised on the other plot for a period of twenty years. Under the present law, the owner of the latter plot could be prevented by a perpetual injunction from raising buildings which would interfere with the access of light and air to buildings raised on the former plot. The law in France was different. An owner there could not acquire any right against an adjoining owner without giving him notice; and if he did acquire any such right it could always he restricted to six feet directly and two feet laterally. The consequence was that large decorative and other improvements were continually going on in Paris. He did not want to give any man the power to injure his neighbour. What he wished to do was this—that as there was an absolute necessity for carrying up buildings, so as to give a greater amount of accommodation to the mercantile public, any injury should be compensated by damages and not by a perpetual prohibition. If the House was in the habit, for the public convenience, of granting to railway companies the right not only to shut up lights but to take property, surely some plan might be devised for settling the cases to which he had referred by means of a jury. The suits instituted for the purpose of preventing an interference with light and air occasioned lengthy discussions on the difference between perpendicular light and lateral light, and the Court itself was sometimes puzzled to know what sort of a decree it should make. If his suggestion were adopted such discussions would be avoided, he wished to know whether the Government thought it was possible to prevent litigation on this subject by bringing forward a measure? If it was thought desirable he would move for a Select Committee on the subject.


said, it would be impossible to accede to any such Motion. The subject was no doubt one of growing importance; but he thought it had been somewhat exaggerated by his hon. Friend. It should be borne in mind that the law was carefully considered and settled so late as the year 1834. In the City of London, up to that time, there was a custom that tenements might be built upon old foundations to any height without regard to other people's light. That was greatly complained of, and it was thought proper to abolish that custom. The owner of a tenement had a right to a certain amount of light, and if he had enjoyed that light for twenty years it was his property. Of course, if the interests of the public required it, the right might be taken away on payment of compensation. No doubt there must be some cases of hardship under the present state of the law; but he thought it would be unreasonable in an offhand manner to unsettle what had so lately been, after full consideration, settled. It was impossible either for a Select Committee or the Government to take the subject into consideration during the present Session; and he therefore trusted that the hon. Gentleman would not press the matter further. In another Session, perhaps—if the hon. Member again introduced the subject—the matter might be fully considered.