Is a building that interferes with TV or radio reception an actionable nuisance

Only someone with a proprietary interest in land can bring an action for a private nuisance. Simply constructing a building on your own land will not expose the landowner to an action for nuisance even if it does interfere with the pre-existing ability of neighbouring land to receive TV or radio signals.

Hunter v Canary Wharf  Ltd ((1998) 30 HLR 409, HL) arose out of the construction of Canary Wharf Tower in London’s Docklands. The building adversely affected TV and radio reception in nearby homes and, in some cases, prevented reception altogether. There was a class action where the neighbours brought proceedings against the developer on the basis that this interference amounted to a private nuisance. Not all of the claimants had freehold or leasehold interests in the affected land. They included, for example, other family members without any such interest. There were two questions. First, who could bring proceedings alleging a private nuisance. Second, was building the tower, with the consequences it had, a private nuisance?

On the first question, the majority of the House of Lords held that only someone with a proprietary interest in the land could bring proceedings. Private nuisance was intended to protect property rights. Even within the majority, there was some difference of view as to who had the necessary interest in land. All agreed that ‘mere licensees’ did not. Lord Cooke, dissenting, thought that it was enough to be occupying the property as a home (at 440 – 441).

On the second question, it was held that simply building on your own land could not give rise to a nuisance. Control over what could be built was the concern of planning law and constraints arising out of restrictive covenants or easements. Lord Hope of Craighead thought that it was useful to take the analogy of the law of easements. Just as a right to a fine view could not be acquired by prescription, neither could the right to the reception of TV or radio signals. Otherwise, developers would be bound by obligations that they had no means of discovering in advance.

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