How much is sunshine worth?

Pity the residents at Shanghai One near River Valley Road. While they have long basked in the morning sun, those living on the lower floors are likely to have much less sunlight once a new seven-storey building is built just in front of their windows.

However, their quandary pales in comparison to that of residents around the corner at Mill Point, where a new building more than a dozen storeys high blocks the light, and to anyone living near the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton. These residents represent a small fraction of the many around the island who face a similar situation.

There is little the residents can do. While the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) does regulate building height, sunlight has not really been a consideration – until recently.

Only during the past year did change begin when the URA commissioned National University of Singapore Professor Heng Chye Kiang to do a three-year study on “sustainable housing typologies”.

The research will “examine the impact of the physical and sociological variables”, including sunlight, “on various aspects that affect sustainability and liveability”.

Decades ago, basic housing was the priority here and few worried about having enough sunlight. As Singapore moved “from Third World to First”, in the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, expectations have changed.

Now, there is vastly more research on the importance of light. The United States-based portal Healthline reports that sunlight deprivation can cause “profound negative change to portions of your brain associated with depression”, and sunlight also causes the body to produce vitamin D.

So, how much is sunshine worth? While there may be development charges for taller buildings, the answer here appears to be zero when it comes to sunlight.

But in other countries, the answer is often “a lot”. Developers have had to change building plans and residents have sued over blocked light, sometimes receiving thousands in compensation.

Legal cases involving sunshine go back to at least 1586, when in the United Kingdom, one Mr Bury sued his neighbour for blocking the light.

In modern-day UK, the Rights to Light Act, “to amend the law relating to rights of light”, was passed in 1959. Lawyer Cameron McKenna recently wrote in The In-House Lawyer that the sharp rise in commercial development “will bring back to the fore the problem of rights of light”.

The action taken to protect access to light can be quite dramatic. In Australia, the Waverly town council blocked construction of new buildings because they were too high. When the property owner sued, the Land and Environment Court in New South Wales decided that the building should “be lowered by removing four levels” to ensure adequate sunlight.

In China as well, there is a price for sunshine. In one case last year, according to the People’s Daily, a court in the city of Qingdao ruled in favour of a group of aggrieved home owners, with one reportedly receiving more than 40,000 yuan ($7,800) in compensation.

It is heartening to see that change may be under way here, with Prof Heng’s study a welcome step. Yet, its recommendations are likely to be at least two years away, and changes to protect access to light could take even longer. Meanwhile, some residents are likely to have less light as more new buildings are constructed.

To ensure continuing access to enough light, it could be worth considering measures sooner rather than later. One step could be making sure that developers ensure continuing access to light in plans for new developments. If light would be blocked, plans could be changed or owners could be compensated. A new act, similar to the UK Rights to Light Act, could even be considered.

The writer is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

Source : Today – 8 Oct 2010

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