Making the grade

Why our places matter

Ben Cowell OBE, Director General of Historic Houses, reflects on solutions for adapting the planning system to encourage historic properties to become more energy efficient. 

Perhaps it is because of the winter weather, or perhaps it is a result of the cost of living crisis, but recently there has been a notable increase in the number of media stories about the energy efficiency of historic properties.

Pieces in The Times, the Financial Times and on Sky News in the last few weeks have all explored how far older buildings can be upgraded for modern conditions.

The topic is never far from the mind of anyone who lives in a historic property. Just before Christmas, Historic England published the results of their latest survey of listed building owners. Shockingly, just under a quarter (23%) of listed building occupants told researchers that they were unable to keep comfortably warm in the winter months.

At present, a full Listed Building Consent application is invariably needed for energy efficiency improvements to even the humblest grade II cottage, whether these involve the upgrading of windows or the addition of solar panels or heat pump units.

Owners of grade II buildings in Kensington and Chelsea in London however will be free of this regulatory requirement once a new listed building consent order for window improvements joins the one passed last year for solar installations. Historic Houses is hugely supportive of these sensible, carefully designed reforms. We hope other environmentally conscious heritage organisations will join us in endorsing the approach that the borough is taking.

It is frustrating, though, that freedoms such as these cannot be enjoyed by grade II listed buildings in most other parts of the country.

The Government is currently consulting on options for enhancing the regulation of listed buildings when it comes to the application of energy efficiency measures. The review, which was due to be concluded by the end of 2022, has been delayed. We are now told its findings will appear ‘in due course’ – which all too often is a convenient shorthand for ‘not very soon’.

In the meantime, new ideas for heritage protection reform keep popping up in the media. The latest such idea is a piece in The Times proposing an extension of the listing regime by the introduction of a new grade III.

Grade III buildings would enjoy a lighter level of regulation. Changes could be made freely to such buildings, but their complete or partial demolition would still require consent. This, the proponents of the idea aver, would eliminate unnecessary demolitions of perfectly good buildings, helping to reduce overall carbon emissions.

There could well be something in this. The twist to the idea that we would want to add, however, would be to allow some existing grade II buildings to be reclassified as grade III.

In this context, it should be noted that grades do not have any legal status as such: they are not mentioned in the 1990 Act. Grades are a regulatory mechanism, rather than a set of standards that is enshrined by law.

We have arrived at our current arrangement in England (of grades I, II* and II) largely through a process of iteration. The listing system here originally began with three grades (I, II and III), but grade III proved unpopular and was soon dropped. It became too impractical to operate with just two grades, however, and so a new grade II* was introduced.

A newly reintroduced grade III status could arguably allow a large body of listed buildings to enjoy more freedoms than they currently do. Nationwide Listed Building Consent Orders could be issued for this specific class of listed buildings, allowing them the same privileges as are now enjoyed by owners of listed buildings in Kensington and Chelsea.

Of course, if a building is deemed to be too significant to be able to enjoy these freedoms, then it should remain as nothing lower than grade II.

But the truth is that many grade II buildings could probably accommodate measures such as secondary or even double glazing (when appropriately done), or the addition of a (removable) heat pump unit or set of solar panels, without any dire consequences for the significance of the building.

Yet a proportion of grade II buildings still get denied listed building consent for such measures. Certainly, the process for gaining listed building consent can be long and arduous, as any listed building owner knows.

The introduction of a grade III regime such as this would presumably not require Parliamentary time – beyond the passing of the LBCO by the Secretary of State (as is already permitted under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013).

All it needs is willpower and determination from those currently undertaking the review of planning regulations affecting listed buildings. We look forward to seeing what they eventually produce in 2023.