By contrast with the timeline of this case to date, the planning system zips along.
This week the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Fearn & Others v Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery (Supreme Court, 1 February 2023), the most important private nuisance case in many years. I’m not hoping to analyse the reasoning of the court in relation to the law of private nuisance, but if you are interested I suggest that you start with the Supreme Court’s own press summary and then enter the blizzard of property litigation lawyers’ updates and thought pieces on LinkedIn etc. I’m only interested in what it means for the town and country planning process – if anything.
I wrote about the first instance ruling of the High Court in my 2 March 2019 blog post, Trial By Instagram: Privacy & Planning. I used to be quite lyrical:
“Photo-sharing social media apps, weaponised by the smartphone camera, are changing our experience and expectations of place. Is the planning system, and the law of private nuisance, keeping up?
The London Evening Standard had a story for our times last night: Please stop ‘influencing’ on our doorsteps, Notting Hill residents tell ‘unapologetic’ Instagrammers.
At a personal level we have all become artists, influencers, curators, with our instant pics, filtered, composed, annotated. Fomo for you = dopamine for me. But zoom out and through endlessly snapping, sharing, liking and commenting, we are of course the product, the hive mind, the crowd source, working for the data mine, adding to the geo-cache, mapping ceaselessly where the sugar is in the city.
In this context, what sells a place? From outside in: a glimpse of the life style, the life, that could be yours. From inside out: unique views out onto a city. The two ugly i words: iconic, instagrammable.
Which all makes the parable of Fearn & others v The Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery (Mann J, 11 February 2019) so perfect.
On one side, the residents of Neo Bankside, housed from floor to ceiling in glass so as to achieve spectacular views out and having paid no doubt precisely to be able to enjoy that experience.
On the other side, at its closest point 34 metres to the north of Block C of Neo Bankside, the viewing gallery on the tenth floor of the Blavatnik Building extension to Tate Modern, from which visitors also have spectacular views, including, to the south, of those residents in their transparent homes.”
And so I went on, analysing Mann J’s judgment in detail, but that analysis is now completely redundant. The Supreme Court has overturned the ruling both of Mann J and subsequent ruling of the Court of Appeal and held, by a majority of three to two that the Tate was liable in nuisance for inviting the public to look out from a viewing platform from which they can, and many do, peer into the claimants’ flats – and (the saga is far from over yet) another court will now need to grapple with the issue of what remedies (injunction/damages) may be appropriate.
However, for planners, it is still worth reading paragraphs 29 to 53 of Mann J’s first instance judgment, where he sets out in detail the planning history of the properties.
Because, for all of us engaged in the town and country planning process, the big question is whether it should be the role of the planning system to seek to prevent juxtapositions of uses like this – or is that a matter for private law (and this case is now a demonstration of the remedies available for individuals who have their private law rights infringed)?
I agree with a post by Dentons’ Michele Vas this week, It’s official – it’s not the role of the planning system to police private rights – or is it? (2 February 2023):
“Whilst this case did concern a very particular set of circumstances as to the level of invasion of privacy the Claimants were subjected to (i.e. I suspect “overlooking” alone is unlikely to be sufficient to base a private nuisance claim on) it does stress how fundamental good design in new development is to avoid future private nuisance claims.
Placemaking, understanding and respecting the integrity of neighbourhoods should be a building block to good design. A further thought is that there is no useful “planning tool” to avoid or minimise future private nuisance claims; unlike property rights, it is not a right which can be lawfully interfered with or compulsorily acquired by relying on a local planning authority’s statutory powers.
Whilst the judgment is an incredibly welcome confirmation that the planning system is not there to police private rights, it is a reminder that design of development is at the heart to preventing these issues arising in the first place.”
I had noted down pretty much the same passages in the judgment as she identifies, namely paragraphs 109 and 110 from Lord Leggatt’s majority judgment:
“Reliance on planning law
109. The second matter of policy raised by the Court of Appeal was a suggestion that planning laws and regulations would be a better medium for controlling “inappropriate overlooking” than the common law of nuisance (para 83). This seems to me to overlook (if I may use the term) the fact that, while both may sometimes be relevant, planning laws and the common law of nuisance have different functions. Unlike the common law of nuisance, the planning system does not have as its object preventing or compensating violations of private rights in the use of land. Its purpose is to control the development of land in the public interest. The objectives which a planning authority may take into account in formulating policy and in deciding whether to grant permission for building on land or for a material change of use are open-ended and include a broad range of environmental, social and economic considerations. While a planning authority is likely to consider the potential effect of a new building or use of land on the amenity value of neighbouring properties, there is no obligation to give this factor any particular weight in the assessment. Quite apart from this, as Lord Neuberger observed in Lawrence v Fen Tigers Ltd  UKSC 13;  AC 822, para 95:
“when granting planning permission for a change of use, a planning authority would be entitled to assume that a neighbour whose private rights might be infringed by that use could enforce those rights in a nuisance action; it could not be expected to take on itself the role of deciding a neighbour’s common law rights.”
110. For such reasons, the Supreme Court made it clear in Lawrence that planning laws are not a substitute or alternative for the protection provided by the common law of nuisance. As Carnwath LJ said in Biffa Waste, para 46(ii), in a passage quoted with approval by Lord Neuberger in Lawrence, at para 92:
“Short of express or implied statutory authority to commit a nuisance … there is no basis, in principle or authority, for using such a statutory scheme to cut down private law rights.”
The practical as well as legal irrelevance of planning permission in this case is apparent from the judge’s finding that no consideration was given to overlooking in the planning process for the Tate extension:  Ch 369, paras 58-63.”
It is also worth noting that Lord Sales’ minority judgment does not dissent in terms of the role of the planning system:
“148. The designs for the Blavatnik Building always included a viewing gallery in some form, although its precise extent varied through successive iterations of the design. Planning policy for the South Bank encourages the construction of viewing galleries in buildings of significant height. However, there is no planning document which indicates that overlooking by the viewing gallery in the direction of Block C was considered by the local planning authority at any stage. It is not likely that the planning authority considered the extent of overlooking. Further, while the Neo Bankside developer was aware of the plans for a viewing gallery, it did not foresee the level of intrusion which resulted. In broad terms, the design and construction of the Blavatnik Building with the viewing gallery in its final form took place in parallel with the design and construction of Neo Bankside, without the effects of the one on the other so far as visual intrusion was concerned being fully appreciated or addressed.”
201. At para 81 the Court of Appeal also pointed out that overlooking is frequently a ground of objection to planning applications and noted that “any recognition that the cause of action in nuisance includes overlooking raises the prospect of claims in nuisance when such a planning objection has been rejected”. However, other forms of activity which can give rise to claims in nuisance, such as the generation of noise, smoke or smells, are also matters which may be addressed in objections to planning applications, so this does not give rise to any point of distinction. More fundamentally, as this court pointed out in Lawrence, at paras 77-95 per Lord Neuberger, the planning regime is concerned with issues of the public interest, not with resolving questions of individual rights. So it is not surprising, and is not a matter of particular concern, that a cause of action in nuisance may be found to exist in a case where an objection to the grant of planning permission founded on similar matters has been rejected. A grant of planning permission pursuant to the administrative processes under the planning regime cannot remove private rights which neighbouring landowners may have. See also Hunter, p 710D, per Lord Hoffmann and Lawrence, paras 156 (Lord Sumption), 165 (Lord Mance) and 193 (Lord Carnwath).”
This must all surely be right. The right approach to the determination of any application for planning permission is whether the proposal is in accordance with the provisions of the local plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. There may often be policies which seek to protect existing residential amenity (although when I look for instance at the current Southwark local plan, postdating these proposals, I see no specific references to protection of existing residents’ privacy or to avoiding overlooking). Even without local policy support, aspect of a development proposal which may adversely affect neighbours are certainly capable of being a material consideration in the determination of an application for planning permission, but as always it is for the decision-maker to decide how much weight to apply to those considerations.
I don’t believe that the judgment increases the onus on local planning authorities to consider privacy/overlooking considerations: planning decisions can only go so far and private law remedies are the ultimate safety net. And of course the circumstances of the Tate Modern case, by virtue of the unusual nature of the viewing platform and the extent of its use, should not be applied too widely. However, one would hope that the Government’s increased emphasis on design in the planning process may reduce the risks of these sorts of unanticipated juxtapositions in the future. It will be interesting to see the Government’s proposed National Development Management Policies in due course…
Simon Ricketts, 4 February 2023
Personal views, et cetera