We are regularly consulted by people who want to carry out works to their property or are worried about their neighbour’s works.

Often the concerns relate to boundaries (where they are, where they were), easements (can I un/block a window) or party walls (I have/have not received a notice…) and so on.

Sometimes they concern trespassing and sometimes they concern damage to property, including trees and shrubs.

But we are also asked about the more general disruption that works cause.

There are complaints about noise, dust, rubbish and vibration. The list goes on, and on. As many complainants would have it, just like the works.

What can unhappy neighbours do about it, and when should those doing the works be concerned?  

We are all familiar with the expression that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. In other words, a property owner can do what he likes with his property. While that concept may have some support in law and may have been unqualified in past centuries, over time the principle has become constrained. For example, planning permission may be required for works, works will generally have to comply with building and other regulations, the party wall etc. Act 1996 might have to be complied with, and so on.

But otherwise, can the property owner just get on with it and do his works?

In Andreae v Selfridge & Company Ltd (1937), the leading judgment of the Court of Appeal contained the following passage:

“…when one is dealing with temporary operations, such as demolition and building, everybody has to put up with a certain amount of discomfort, because operations of that kind cannot be carried on at all without a certain amount of noise and a certain amount of dust. Therefore, the rule with regard to interference must be read subject to this qualification, and there can be no dispute about it, that in respect of operations of this character, such as demolition and building, if they are reasonably carried on, and all proper and reasonable steps are taken to ensure that no undue inconvenience is caused to neighbours, whether from noise, dust, or other reasons, the neighbours must put up with it.”

That passage has been referred to and relied on many times since, by both those doing the works and those challenging them.

One would hope that it would not be an issue in relation to the sort of works this note contemplates, but in Coventry and anor v Lawrence and anor (2014), the Supreme Court held (among other things) that it is possible to acquire a right to continue a nuisance if the nuisance (in that case noise) has been going on for a long time uninterrupted (more than 20 years).

Complaining about a neighbour’s works

The problem for those complaining about a neighbour’s works is being able to demonstrate that the reasonableness threshold has been crossed. Identifying where it is presents the first problem, but then showing that it has been crossed enough to pursue a claim is another.

Building regulations, local bylaws and planning conditions sometimes help set the parameters for interference (with restrictions about days and times of working, vehicle movements and so on), but there might be assistance elsewhere. For example, in the case of party wall works, the party wall award might (and often does) include provisions regarding how the works are to be carried out and within what period of time etc.

All of this adds up to a great deal of uncertainty – about whether a case will be successful, and therefore its cost and related risks. Often the works are carried out by homeowners, adding another level of complication as one usually (but not always) endeavours to remain cordial with one’s neighbours. The works might cause disturbance, but the bigger picture of having to live with the neighbours often influences complainants to bite their tongue and put up with more than they need to.

Sometimes a developer might contend that the fact it has been granted planning permission to do work entitles it to cause the disturbance complained of. One of the other findings in Coventry and anor v Lawrence and anor (2014) challenges that.

Commercial property nuisances

Of course the problem is not restricted to residential property. It comes up in commercial cases too.

The Andreae case was brought by a hotel owner/operator against a developer. More recently the development known as the Pinnacle tower in Bishopsgate, was the subject of a claim with an adjoining occupier complaining of vibration nuisance which exceeded levels that had been agreed between them. Initially an injunction was granted to the neighbour to prevent the developer from working in a manner that exceeded certain vibration levels. The order was appealed, and then the case was settled, reportedly on the basis that the developer paid the neighbour an agreed sum of £350,000 (there was a separate argument about the costs of the proceedings).

Possible claims

In a 2011 case, building works and nuisance was considered again.

In Jones & another v Ruth & another (Court of Appeal 12 July 2011), the neighbouring homeowners complained of various interferences with their rights by the adjoining owners who carried out extensive works including adding a third storey to one of the properties concerned.

The neighbours said that there had been:

(i) a trespass against them – making holes and attaching purlins to their gable end wall and by scaffolding, building materials and rubbish in the garden

(ii) damage caused to their roof and boundary wall

(iii) excessive noise and vibration (which caused cracking)

(iv) harassment of them

(v) personal injury, financial loss and loss of amenity

At the trial, the judge found that the principal allegations of trespass and nuisance had been proved, including that the works had gone on for a period of four years, when they should have been completed in a year.

Although an injunction had been sought by the neighbours, it was declined, and the following sums appear to have been awarded (once the Court of Appeal had also considered the case):

(a) loss of amenity - £30,000

(b) harassment - £6,000

(c) personal injury - £28,750

(d) financial loss - £115,000

(e) trespass - £15,000

(f) interest

(g) costs

All of that adds up to a sizeable sum.

Lessons learned

What is the lesson from all of this? The statement of the court in Andreae remains a powerful support to developers, but someone doing works cannot ride roughshod over the rights and interests of neighbours. No one for a moment would suggest that there mustn’t be any interference whatsoever. Nothing would ever get done if that was the case. But appropriate care has to be taken to keep disruption at reasonable levels. That means preparing, implementing and monitoring carefully any scheme involving development, whether of commercial or residential property and ensuring it is completed within an appropriate period of time.