Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Restrictive covenants (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)

Restrictive covenants (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)

A restrictive covenant is a private agreement between land owners where one party will restrict the use of its land in some way for the benefit of another's land. Restrictive covenants, once agreed between the parties, are placed in the title deeds to the property. They bind the land and not the parties personally. In other words, the restrictive covenant 'runs with the land'. This means that the covenant continues even when the original parties to the covenant sell the land on to other people. Restrictive covenants also continue to have effect even though they were made many years ago and appear to be obsolete. They are enforceable by one landowner against another, provided they are restrictive or 'negative' in their effect and effectively allow a form of private planning control.

An example of restrictive covenants on a housing development are deed restrictions that protect property values by preventing any deviation of the appearance of units within the development from a standard. Frequently, restrictive covenants will also control some of the activities that take place within the boundaries of the properties they apply to.

A restrictive covenant can be enforced by the courts if a beneficiary of the covenant objects. The agreement is enforced by granting an injunction forbidding the landowner to break the agreement. The Upper Tribunal in England and Wales and the Lands Tribunal in Northern Ireland have powers under section 84 of the Law of Property Act 1925 or Article 5 of the Property (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 to dissolve or relax covenants that appear to be out of date or unreasonable. To insure against the risk will generally be the option, but cover may not always be available

A person who is affected by a restrictive covenant has two options to protect themselves against any action for breaching it:

  • Obtaining insurance cover, known as 'indemnity insurance', in respect of any attempt to enforce the covenant
  • Seeking a declaration from the Upper Tribunal in England and Wales and the Lands Tribunal in Northern Ireland that the covenant is invalid

It will generally be cheaper and quicker to insure against the risk of action for breach than seeking a declaration, but cover may not always be available if the beneficiaries of the covenant have notice of a breach or planned breach.

Refusing a neighbour's building request

Where there is a restrictive covenant not to build on certain land, if the owner of the land wishes to build, they must obtain permission from the person having the benefit of the restrictive covenant.

Ignoring a restrictive covenant

If you choose to ignore a restrictive covenant, you could potentially face a claim in damages for the breach in addition to any injunctions granted. There are two types of damages that can be awarded:

  • Compensatory damages to reflect the diminution in the value of the benefited land by reason of the breach
  • Damages awarded in lieu of an injunction

The court may take into account what the parties would have negotiated for the release of the covenant and whether or not the claimant may have tacitly approved the breach by failing to prevent breach while having knowledge of it.

Discharge and modification of restrictive covenants

Making an application

Under Section 84 of the Law of Property Act 1925 or Article 5 of the Property (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, a person interested in certain types of land can apply to the Upper Tribunal in England and Wales or the Lands Tribunal in Northern Ireland to have any restriction on that land cancelled or modified.

Even if the applicant succeeds in discharging (the technical term for cancelling) or modifying a covenant, they will not get their costs from any objectors. This is because the applicant is seeking an indulgence from the Tribunal to release them from an otherwise binding obligation. In addition, if the application fails, the applicant will have to pay the objector's costs. The objector will only be made to pay some of the applicant's costs if the Tribunal thinks they acted unreasonably in objecting.

The Tribunal may discharge or modify the restriction if it is satisfied that one or more of the requirements for discharge are present. The requirements for discharge are:

  • The restriction ought to be deemed obsolete because of changes in the character of the property or the neighbourhood, or there are other circumstances of the case which the Tribunal may deem material. Alternatively, the continued existence of those circumstances would restrict the reasonable use of the land for public or private purposes without any practical benefit to other persons; or
  • The persons entitled to benefit from the restriction have agreed to the discharge or modification; or
  • The proposed discharge or modification will not affect the persons entitled to the benefit of the restriction:

What must be in the application

An application to discharge or modify a restriction must contain all the information set out in the Tribunal Procedure (Upper Tribunal) (Lands Chamber) Rules 2010 (in England and Wales) or the Lands Tribunal Rules (Northern Ireland) 1978 as amended, including an identification of the land which is subject to the restriction, and the land which has or may have the benefit of the restriction. The identity of any person known or believed to have the benefit of the restriction must also be set out in the application. The grounds for discharge or modification must be stated. It is very important to clearly state the reasons why the applicant believes that any ground applies.

Plans which identify both areas of land must be included with the application together with a copy of the document which created the restriction, including a coloured copy of any plan mentioned in that document.

The Tribunal does not have jurisdiction to modify or discharge any covenant that is positive in character. Positive covenants require the person subject to them to do something, usually involving the expenditure of money. Applications should not include such covenants. Any application that includes positive covenants can't proceed until the applicant has submitted an amended application with the positive covenants removed.

Publication of notices

When the Registrar receives the application, it determines what notices of the application must be given to people who appear to be entitled to the benefit of the restriction. The applicant is directed to give personal notices to anyone who can be identified by name and address, and notice by advertisement in respect of all others. The notices set out the substance of the application and require those who claim to be entitled to the benefit of the restriction and who object to the application to notify the Registrar of their objection.

Notice of objection and admission of objectors

Notice of objection and any claim for compensation must be given in writing to the Registrar within one month of the notice of the application. The objector is required to state why they claim to be entitled to the benefit of the restriction and why they are objecting. Where entitlement is not clear, a preliminary hearing may be held to decide disputes regarding who is entitled to object to the application.

Unopposed applications

In the case of applications where no objection has been made, or where no one has been admitted or found entitled to oppose the application, the Tribunal may determine the application without a hearing, provided the applicant agrees.

Opposed applications

Where objections have been made and not withdrawn, or where the grounds for the application have not been clearly established, an oral hearing will usually be held in order to decide the application.

Compensation for discharge

The Tribunal may require compensation to be paid to a person who might suffer from the discharge or modification of a restrictive covenant. The sum is either to make up for any loss or disadvantage suffered as a consequence of the discharge or modification, or to make up for any reduced price for the land received when the restriction was imposed. An objector to an application may be entitled to one or the other, not both.

Court declarations

You can apply to the court for a declaration to determine:

  • Whether or not a restriction does, or may in certain circumstances, exist
  • What the nature of a restriction is and if it is enforceable

This can be useful where there is any uncertainty about the covenant itself or whether or not action may be taken as a result of any breach of a restrictive covenant. A negative declaration can be applied for which would remove any need to apply for indemnity insurance.

County court applications (England and Wales)

It is possible (under s 610 of the Housing Act 1985), in certain circumstances, to vary the terms of a property's title or a lease through an application to the county court. This route is available where conversion of the property is prevented by a restrictive covenant AND either of the following applies:

  • Changes in the character of the neighbourhood mean that the property can't readily be let as a single dwelling-house, but could readily be let if converted into two or more dwelling-houses; or
  • Planning permission has been granted under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 for the use of the premises as two or more separate dwelling-houses instead of as a single dwelling-house

County court or high court applications (Northern Ireland)

It is possible to apply to the High Court and, in certain circumstances, to the county court in order to establish or enforce a restrictive covenant. The court may do one of the following things:

  • Make an order to modify or extinguish any restrictive covenant, on any ground, on any terms that the Lands Tribunal would have under Article 5
  • Refuse to make an order where the owner's interest is not materially affected by the breach (if any), or where for some other reason it would be unjust to make one
  • Make an order for specific performance of the obligation if the covenant consists of a positive obligation

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