The grim facts of property blight: Residents have no control over construction work on their doorsteps. Sally Moore urges legal change

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The Independent Online
AT A TIME when the public transport vs roads debate is gaining momentum, spare a thought for those who find themselves on the wrong side of major new schemes. Most such projects take about 10 years from development to completion, nearly double the average time that people stay in one house. Just a hint of a new road or railway is enough to blight a property.

When faced with such a scheme you have three options: to try to stop it; to face (or seek) compulsory purchase of your home; or to try for compensation.

Most major developments start with public consultation, which frequently leads to a public inquiry. The consultation, giving residents access to plans and exhibits of the scheme, provides the first opportunity for formal objections. Try to get as many influential people as possible on your side. Search out useful professionals among your neighbours. Your local council's help should not be underestimated, given the wealth of technical data that the scheme's promoters will produce. But such support may be hard to enlist if there is a chance that the scheme will create jobs.

When objections are lodged, a major project will not usually go ahead until a public inquiry is held. Anyone directly affected has the right to a voice, but no legal aid is available.

It may take as long as five years for the go-ahead to be given for a large project. During this time, people living nearby and wanting to move are likely to find it impossible. Their home will, at best, only be saleable at a fraction of its value. In areas affected by the Channel tunnel rail link, for example, blight is so severe that many estate agents will not take properties on to their books.

Strictly speaking, only those whose land is physically required for a scheme have a right to demand that the developers buy their home. Most people will not fall into this category. As a result they will be saddled with an unsaleable home.

Compensation is only payable to home owners for the loss in value of their property, and only covers depreciation caused by factors such as noise and fumes, not less tangible losses such as a view. Home owners usually do not get compensation until one year after the scheme opens, often too late for people affected by long-term blight. Tenants whose lives are equally affected are completely overlooked.

The impact of construction works for large-scale projects should not be underestimated. Only residents whose lives are made totally intolerable stand the slightest chance of being moved during the work. Unless you can show that the disruption is unnecessary and unreasonable, you have no legal redress.

Noise is usually the worst problem, followed by dust, vibrations and loss of privacy. Such ill effects can be dramatically reduced if a site is well managed, so it is worth pressing to get the best practices in place at the beginning. In extreme cases, where residents can show that disruption has been unreasonable, they can take legal action for compensation and to get the work stopped until protective measures are put in place.

Some people are paying a high price for projects that benefit the rest of us. We need a dramatic change in our system of compensation for those whose quality of life is damaged and whose major assets plummet because of schemes over which they have no control.

Sally Moore is a partner with Leigh, Day & Co, 51 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8PP (071-242 1775).

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