New problems need new solutions

Why our places matter

Ben Cowell, OBE, Director General of Historic Houses, explains why our approach to heritage protection needs to change.

Heritage matters. It might be a thirteenth-century parish church, a medieval moated manor, a Georgian streetscape or an early twentieth-century complex of industrial warehouses – all are aspects of the UK’s unique and diverse built environment. But it’s time to look again at the way we ‘protect’ this heritage.

England alone has nearly half a million listed buildings, 20,000 scheduled monuments, over 1,500 historic parks and gardens and twenty UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage Sites. Most of these sites are in private hands. This makes heritage is the ultimate example of a public-private partnership. In return for accepting the privilege of being able to live in a Grade II-listed Victorian rectory, private owners accept that a designation (the listing) imposes additional limits on their freedom of action.

Making changes to listed buildings generally requires special permission from the local planning authority, or listed building consent. This consent is by no means guaranteed. The more radical the proposed change, the harder it is for the owner to secure the consent. The legislation requires the planning authority to weigh up different factors when making their assessment. Of crucial importance is whether any damage to the significance of a site is compensated for by the benefits that might arise from a proposed change. Broadly, much weight is attached to the conservation of a heritage asset, and this gets stronger in relation to the relative importance of the asset in question.

The heritage protection system is a late nineteenth-century invention. The first monuments legislation was introduced in 1882, although the penalties for causing damage to one of the monuments on the initial schedule were practically non-existent. Over time, the level of protection afforded to designated assets has strengthened, such that it is now a criminal offence to cause wilful damage to the significance of a listed building or scheduled monument. But the basic approach to heritage protection – identify an official list of ‘stuff’ and then impose restrictions on how that stuff can be used – hasn’t changed for nearly a century and a half.

Nowadays, this legislation is enforced through hundreds of local authority conservation officers, whose job is to monitor applications for listed building consent, as well as to keep a watchful eye on changes being made without recourse to the planning system. Advocates of the current system of heritage protection say that everything would work perfectly if only there were enough conservation officers employed at the local level. But the overall number of conservation officers has been cut by around a third over the last decade, and they are unlikely to return any time soon.

We end up in an anomalous position. Those law-abiding owners who make applications ahead of making a change to their listed building find that the process is costly in time and money and doesn’t always lead to permission being granted. (I heard recently of an elderly tenant with mobility problems being denied listed building consent for a stair-lift to be installed in her nineteenth-century cottage, because of the damage the lift would allegedly cause to the property’s significance.) Meanwhile, less law-abiding owners, or those who might be ignorant of their legal duties, go ahead and make the changes anyway. Invariably, given the cut in conservation officers, such owners may never be caught or reprimanded for their actions. So the system fails to protect, but nor does it always permit the sorts of modest changes that really should be get the green light, given the need to update so much of the UK’s housing stock.

That need is more pressing now than ever before, because of the climate crisis. Buildings are responsible for a quarter of all carbon emissions. Historic buildings represent a stock of embodied carbon but can be inefficient in the way they use energy day-to-day. Thick stone walls do not provide the opportunity for cavity-wall insulation, and solar panels and double glazing are not always appropriate.

Listed building owners must participate in the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) process. But this fails to account for the unique characteristics of many historic structures. Unless listed buildings attain a ‘C’ rating in an EPC, they can no longer be tenanted after 2025. This poses a very real and pressing issue for the custodians of listed properties. Imagine all those National Trust tenanted cottages and holiday homes that will need to stand empty if their energy efficiency cannot be uprated. (EPC exemptions are available if the listed building truly cannot be brought up to scratch, but these are temporary measures that require renewal every five years.)

Given the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, there is no choice but for us to dial down some of the preciousness built into the heritage protection system. A system that is built on local authority conservation officers making balanced judgements too easily becomes one in which blanket refusals become the norm. After all, there is no cost imposed on the conservation officer who says ‘no’. The cost – in terms of the delay that this causes to any planned improvement works – falls entirely on the owner. A system that was invented to save rare historic assets has become a blanket deterrent to sensible, modest changes that would enhance the chances of those assets’ survival in the long run.

Can anything be done? The main heritage agencies and lobby groups, often staffed by ex-conservation officers, tend to deny that any such problem exists. The views of owners, meanwhile, are too rarely considered. If they were, there would be much more enthusiasm for pursuing practical reform measures that help to tackle the climate crisis without causing excessive damage to our heritage.

But solutions are available. An example of a forward-thinking local planning authority is the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It has recently deployed a little-used legal mechanism to permit owners of Grade II and some Grade II* buildings to install solar panels on their roofs without the need for a listed building consent application. Safeguards are built in to prevent the most egregious examples of architectural vandalism. Since we are more and more accustomed to seeing solar panels on roofs, why not allow listed building owners this permitted development right? The addition of solar panels is a reversible adaptation of a building – they can be removed as easily as they can be attached, should circumstances mean they are no longer viable. More local authorities should pursue ideas like this.

Another proposal is for local authorities to outsource some of the decision-making on proposed changes to listed buildings, especially those listed at Grade II. Individual conservation architects could be accredited with the power to make the balanced judgement about whether a change meets the legal requirements. Given that professional reputations would be at stake, such accredited professionals are hardly likely to put their name to architectural atrocities. Since most applications for listed building consent are uncontroversial, such an approach would give hard-pressed local authority conservation services the extra capacity to focus on the changes that really matter. But the vested interests of professionals within the world of planning and development have so far stamped down on any reform along these lines.

There are signs that the Government understands the problem and is seeking to find solutions. The recent Energy Security Strategy announced a review of the practical planning barriers faced when homeowners install energy efficiency measures, including in conservation areas and listed buildings. While seeking to protect local amenity and heritage, the Government is committed to making it easier to improve energy efficiency, with action promised in 2022.

An anticipated review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) offers another opportunity to revise the wording that describes the balance of judgements that local planning officers must make. Currently, officers must offset any damage to heritage significance with an assessment of the ‘public benefits’ that a proposal might seek to deliver. Nowhere in the chapter of the NPPF that deals with heritage is the climate crisis referenced. If the NPPF was revised to explain how the public benefits of changes to listed buildings can include reducing their carbon emissions, perhaps fewer modest proposals for installing air-source heat pumps or double-glazing units to the backs of Grade II-listed cottages would be so easily rejected out-of-hand.

The UK can be proud of its heritage. But the owners of historic properties are only too aware of the expense involved in maintenance and repair. Allowing listed buildings more freedom to evolve and adapt to the demands of the twenty-first century will give such properties more of a fighting chance of surviving into the next century and beyond. The law currently bakes in a restrictive set of protections for heritage which ultimately tend to make that heritage unsustainable. If you love something, set it free.