Friday, 17 February 2012

Listed Building Control

A comment was left the other day by “GV BSC(Hons) BTP DipArchCons MRTPI IHBC” in response to my post on proposed changes to Listed Building control (published on 3 December last year). Although I disagree with one or two of the points made, I thought it deserved a proper airing here.

My anonymous correspondent writes: "I am concerned that your proposed changes to the system of control shows a lack of understanding of what is the ‘special architectural and historic interest’ of a building, or indeed how an old building functions.

Two points.

‘Materially affect the basic structure’. Who makes that judgement? No more précis than that laid out in Section 7 of the Act at present.

You seem to be suggesting that if it is not structural then no consent is required? So no need to remove 400 years old timber screens, or remove plaster wall paintings then (which I see in grade II buildings)? But you would need consent to remove the modern wall put in that was put in for structural reasons, but now intended to alter? You show no understanding of plan form or conservation of historic fabric. The irony is that I see in buildings what I see in museums. Why do we value it in a glass case, but not in the building where it belongs.

Buildings of traditional construction function differently. Moisture travels through them, and if modern materials are used inappropriately then can decay, and become unpleasant places to live. People pour money into them carrying out ill advised and useless work when a traditional approach would work and be cheaper.

I look forward to the resurvey that includes interiors. I think a number of buildings will drop out of being listed, whilst others will prove more important. I know a number of 15th C buildings that were re-fronted in the 17th or 18th C, and are far more important and rare (if you are of the view that historic buildings are important) than first look from the outside.

I disagree with your assertion that “There are very few interior features in Grade II listed buildings which are of special architectural or historic importance in themselves, and so there would be comparatively little risk of significant features being lost in this way” What do you base this view on? I am a conservation officer in a local authority with getting on for 5000 list entries, and I constantly find features of ‘special architectural or historic importance’ which are not noted on the listing. Think of a mill building, which might mention the water wheel and if you are lucky how many grinding stones there are. In your world all the other machinery could be removed, as it is not structural and not noted in the listing.

I can see a way forward on prior notification, which would save the resurvey. An owner notifies the LPA of the proposed works and the LPA can agree to those works without a consent, or a consent is required. The comparison would be Agricultural Notifications. It would remove a large number of innocuous minor changes from the system of control, allowing low-level changes to be made which are not damaging, and indeed some of which should be encouraged! It does mean though that the LPA needs someone who knows what they are doing.

It is all about babies and bath water. We need to conserve what is important, whilst allowing buildings to continue in use and be relevant. At a housing level it often about getting the right person for a building, the one person may aspire to a large farmhouse kitchen in a three cell cross passage house, looking to destroy four hundred years of history, whilst the for the next the layout is ideal. On that basis is the loss of historic fabric acceptable?

Not all change is justified in the historic context, and I am concerned that a rush to simplify will result in the destruction of much of the history that relates to the ordinary man without any real knowledge of what is being lost. Hence the need for a resurvey. Unless of course we properly use section 7, and have a system of prior notification when there would be no need for this.”

In my article on 3 December I was primarily reporting the government’s proposals for reform of the listed building control regime, but I added my own spin to it, and it is this aspect of my piece to which ‘GV’ clearly takes exception. Admittedly I had my tongue partly in my cheek, and would not necessarily press for all of the further changes I suggested, and in any event the government is clearly stopping somewhat short of that.

I confess to being slightly surprised that “400-year old timber screens” or “plaster wall paintings” are to be found in Grade II buildings. The presence of such features would suggest to me that such a building ought to be upgraded to II*.

However, it might surprise GV to learn that I live in a listed building myslef and that I share his concern about the need for the use of sympathetic materials in repairs and alterations, which will allow the walls to ‘breathe’. Our predecessor had damp problems in one wall, which we quickly solved by having the Portland cement pointing on the outside of the wall raked out and replaced with lime mortar, following which the wall was lime-washed (as it had been historically) and by having the inside of the wall faced with lime plaster. We also did quite a few alterations and an extension, all of which were carried out with Listed Building Consent, and all were sympathetic to the form and history of the house.

Incidentally, the prior notification procedure which GV suggest is very similar to what was required up to 31 December 1968. Provided there is an effective sanction which will apply where work is carried out without going through the prior notification procedure, this might be a practical way forward. Where it fell down under the pre-1969 rules was that there was no effective sanction against failure to comply with the procedure, which is why we then got the current LBC system instead, which came into effect on 1 January 1969.

Notwithstanding these points, I think there is scope for further liberalisation of the LBC regime, and some of the ideas I originally put in the mouth of ‘Jim Hacker’ back in April 2010 might be worthy of further consideration.


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