10 December 2015
Time to revisit the list?
by Lynda Goetz
According to the Historic England website, there were approximately 500,000 listed buildings in the UK, as of March 2015. Of these, 92% are Grade II listed. It was reported last week that many of these could be placed in danger because of the knock-on effects of spending cuts. Historic England is the Government’s official guardian of national heritage and their research has disclosed that the number of experts in historic properties employed by councils has declined, as budget cuts over the last five years have seen council funds reduced. This shortage of experts has coincided with an increase in applications by owners of listed buildings to carry out upgrades to their properties. Historic England has expressed concern that this could lead to historic treasures effectively being lost as a result of unsuitable changes being waved through and owners getting away with unauthorised alterations. Is this really a something we should be worried about or might this be an opportune moment to look more closely at the role of Historic England and of the way buildings have been categorised for listing over the last 68 years?
The official name of Historic England is “The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England” and the role which it now carries out was conferred on English Heritage in 1984. On 1 April 2015, English Heritage was split and the English Heritage name has now been conferred on a new charity, The English Heritage Trust, which is responsible for the National Heritage Trust collection of 400 state-owned historic houses and monuments. It opens them to the public and cares for them under a licence from Historic England, which operates until 2023. Historic England is now the public body ‘responsible for the historic environment, providing expert advice, helping people protect and care for it, and helping the public to understand and enjoy it’.
Listing criteria are set out on the Historic England website and, whilst any member of the public is free to put a property forward for listing, an essential criterion is that the property should be of national ‘special interest’. As the website points out, many old buildings are interesting, but that is not enough to have them designated.
The original creation of the statutory list was prompted by damage to buildings in World War II. Prior to that, only major ancient monuments had either state recognition or statutory protection. It was the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 which codified the adhoc processes which had developed during the war and led to the first formal list of buildings being created. All buildings built before 1700 ‘which contain a significant proportion of their original fabric’ are listed, as are most of those built between 1700 and 1840. As the criteria have become tighter with time, any post 1945 buildings have to be exceptionally important to be listed. There was a major re-survey in the mid to late 1980s following the demolition of the art deco Firestone Tyre factory, which caused a major public outcry. 36,000 buildings were added to the list in 1987 alone. In 2009 the number added was just 632. De-listing is possible but rare in practice. For listing or de-listing the application has to go to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, effectively Historic England.
In England and Wales, the management of listed buildings is the responsibility of local planning authorities and listed buildings cannot be modified without first obtaining Listed Building Consent. Although there is a general principle that buildings are put to ‘viable and appropriate use’ and an understanding that this may involve the modification of a building, this clearly adds an extra layer of bureaucracy to be overcome for anyone wishing to make alterations to a listed property. The onerous nature of these additional regulations becomes apparent when property owners find that not only are they obliged to use specific and potentially expensive materials or techniques, but that energy-saving or money-saving possibilities such as double glazing or solar panels are denied to them without tedious time-consuming and bureaucratic applications which may be refused. Carrying out unauthorised works to a listed building is a criminal offence and owners can be prosecuted. Many people are thus wary of becoming the owner/custodian of a listed property, particularly as in many cases the reason for the listing is a minor feature but the listing (and hence all the regulations) applies to the entire property and anything within its curtilage.
In the South West, which has nearly 90,000 listed buildings, specialist council staff have almost halved in the last nine years, whilst the number of applications to alter listed buildings is rising steadily. It is up 3% (to a total of 5,687) in the last year alone. According to Historic England, “Listed Building Consents represent just over 11% of all planning consents in the region, higher than the national figure of 7.3% and higher than any other region.” This is hardly surprising if one considers that the 89,746 listed buildings in the South West represents nearly one fifth of the total for the entire country.
One does wonder why it is that the West Country has ended up with such a high proportion of Listed Buildings. It could be perhaps that, apart from the Devon county town of Exeter, the area, being relatively lightly populated, escaped a lot of the bombing to which other parts of the country were subjected. Could it also be that there was a lack of judgement in those early years, particularly when it was perceived as advantageous or prestigious to own a Listed Building? I can certainly think of a number of properties where one would be hard put to agree that ‘a substantial proportion of the original building remains’.
John Sell, Chair of the Historic Environment Forum says , “The research confirms what many of us have long believed – that owners of historic buildings care deeply about them and want to look after them as well as they possibly can.” This is almost certainly the case, since those who are prepared to purchase older houses usually love the character and sense of history these places possess. On the whole they genuinely wish to retain the aspects that make these places special. Perhaps then it is time to trust them a little more with the properties they have invested in and relax some of the more petty regulations which surround them, many of which go against common sense, to allow them to be brought into the 21st century whilst retaining essential appearances and characteristics from previous era. It does seem a very odd thing indeed when a house owner who is trying to improve his property is forced to retain, for example, a corrugated iron roof because that was what was in situ at the time of the listing, even if the building in question is a 17th century cottage and the rest of the roofing is thatch! It also seems unnecessarily harsh to subject people to criminal prosecution for any failure to deal with the property in the way deemed to be appropriate by the authorities.
Perhaps, in the light of the reduced number of ‘experts’ available at local authority level to pontificate on the rights and wrongs of leaded lights, double glazing or the existence of a Muntin screen put into the property in the 1970s by some over-enthusiastic ‘doer-upper’, it is time to make the process of de-listing easier, to reduce the number of unimportant listed buildings and to make the ownership of a property that is truly of historic or architectural interest a less onerous proposition for those who are prepared to take on some of the most beautiful buildings in the country. If the Conservatives truly wish to reduce the ‘burden of Government’ this might be one of the areas in which they could consider doing so.