Landowners risk losing rights over unused sites, warns DWF

Developers and landowners who have put schemes on hold in the current climate should beware that other people may gain rights over the land which may prevent future developments and lead to a substantial reduction in its value, according to law firm DWF.

Karen Phillips, real estate associate in Liverpool, comments: "In the current climate, with many development sites mothballed and property companies facing financial pressures, it is understandable that many plots will be lying empty with only occasional visits from the owners.

"However, landowners should view these sites as a source of long-term opportunities and manage them carefully to ensure they safeguard their rights and keep their options open for the future."

Phillips says there are various risks landowners need to be aware of and the preventative actions they can take:

  • Rights to light

Owners or occupiers of properties on adjacent sites may over time acquire the right to light, which may affect your plans for the site. Find out who occupies the surrounding land and check if any development you are planning will affect the light they currently have. If this is the case, consider obtaining a Light Obstruction Notice (LON) to prevent them acquiring rights.

  • Rights of way

Visit the land at different times, talk to locals, and find out who is using it. Where appropriate, put up signage indicating that it is private land and that others have no right to use it, negotiate a licence fee with users or consider fencing it off.

  • Adverse possession

The situation regarding adverse possession – or squatters' rights as it is commonly known – has changed in recent years in favour of landowners.

Squatters can apply to the Land Registry to be registered as the owner of the land but once they have done so, the Land Registry needs to send you notice of the claim before they gain rights over it. If you don't receive notice you lose the right to object, and will lose your land to the squatter. For this reason you should keep the Land Registry records up to date. Up to three addresses can be registered.

If you do receive such notice you must seek legal advice immediately. However in the absence of this, it is still important to find out if anyone is occupying your land and pursue a possession claim to remove them.

  • Trespass

Check not only for occupants on your land but also if there any structures on it – fire escapes, buildings, advertisements and overhanging structures can all amount to trespass. If so, you may wish to enforce your rights as soon as possible. In some circumstances you may consider permitting the trespass – the trespasser then becomes a licensee or tenant and their occupation can be terminated as agreed by the terms of the document.

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