A Case for Delisting

On many occasions I have been involved with buildings that are being proposed for inclusion on the National Heritage List; establishing special architectural and historic interest is something with which most of us who work in the historic environment will be familiar. On far fewer occasions, I am sure, will we be involved with removing a building from the List. I would suggest there are two principal reasons for this: first, there is perhaps a genuine reluctance to strip a building of its statutory protection, which in itself seems anathema to most of us who fight the heritage cause, ‘just in case’ it should need protection from some future development. Secondly, there are perhaps few occasions when one would confidently assess a building to have lost the very prerequisite that demands its protection: how does one define and rate special architectural and historic interest?

A recent project brought these considerations into sharp relief. We were instructed to carry out a Historic Building Appraisal of a small cottage in the heart of rural Essex to inform future proposals. The building is sited on a quiet, though rather large, village green that developed as a hamlet of the original parish core, now located about a mile north. Ostensibly the building was a fairly straightforward example of late 15th or early 16th century single-storey thatched hall house, with an attic half-storey at the southern (service) end and a perhaps an ad hoc mezzanine at the northern (upper) end. It is a type of small hall-house that has surviving counterparts in neighbouring villages in this part of Essex. On this basis, the building was listed Grade II in 1983, when the building was in a state of dereliction.

Essex Cottage

The cottage from the southwest

Sadly, disaster struck within a year of listing when the building was gutted by fire. Photos taken at the time of rebuilding revealed that, despite the loss of internal partitions and the external timber-frame infilling, a good deal of structural fabric had survived, including sole and wall plates, most principal posts, the southern hip and a number of common rafter pairs. The brick stack, a 17th century insertion, also survived. There was therefore every reason to conclude that much of this fabric has been incorporated into the new-build.

1984 before rebuild

During rebuilding (1984)

However, there were some features of the building which challenged this viewpoint: the current brick stack bore no resemblance to that shown in the pre- and post-fire photos and was of a noticeably modern brick, the exposed rafter feet were all identical in shape and mathematically-precise in spacing, with modern machine saw marks. Internally, there were indications that the wall plate had been removed, as two reused jowled posts showed a gap where the plate should be, whilst the tie-beams were in new, band-sawn timber and the square-section crown posts were clearly modern insertions. Reflecting on these details, it was fairly clear that the building had been a wholesale rebuilding, incorporating only a small number of reused timbers, only one of which was in the same place. On this conclusion, initial discussions were opened with the Local Authority to discuss an application to delist the property; initial support was given but further opening-up was advised to be sure that no historic timbers remained in the walls or roof. The opening-up revealed that the entire roof and the external walls were in modern timber-frame; the reused principal posts and tie-beam had been relegated to a non-structural function.

Therefore on the basis of our report and the opening-up, an application was submitted to English Heritage to delist the building, on the grounds that it was now nothing more than a replication of an early Tudor cottage and, though the rebuilding largely attempted to replicate the overall 3-cell plan and even the position of the original hall window, its special architectural and historic interest had been greatly diminished, if not wholly lost. The application was subsequently approved after further investigation by English Heritage and the building removed from the List. Though some might argue that the mere replication of the hall-house plan retained some historical interest, the scale of the rebuilding and near-total loss of fabric made this argument difficult to sustain. Such cases, where the building’s spirit has been lost and effectively forged later, are regrettable, and serve to remind us that the National Heritage List is there to protect those buildings that retain their history and spirit. To maintain statutory protection of a building no longer meeting the requirements, would, to my mind, do a disservice to those that remain designated.

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Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013

On 6 April 2014, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 came into effect, resulting in amendments to the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. The ERR Act has resulted in some changes to the current framework of heritage protection which, according to English Heritage, ‘are aimed at making protection more efficient and effective’. Just to makes sense of these changes, I have included a brief summary below. Further information on each of the new measures can be found by hovering over the titles and clicking the links.

Certificates of Lawfulness of Proposed Works

These (optional) certificates can be sought by those planning works to a listed building, or other designated heritage asset, when it can be demonstrated that the works do not affect the special architectural or historic interest. The effect of the Certificate, issued by the Local Authority, is to confirm that the proposed works do not require a formal Listed Building Consent Application. It should be noted that a Certificate cannot be sought for demolition and is only valid for 10 years.

The intention behind these Certificates is to reduce the number of formal Listed Building Consent applications by providing an option to remove those for minor works. However,  I’m sure I don’t need to outline the difficulties of making judgements of impact on character etc. from applicant submissions that will be de facto scantier than for full LBC applications. Caveant consilia.

Heritage Partnership Agreements (HPAs)

Informal agreements along these lines have been promoted by English Heritage in the past, but the ERR Act puts them on a statutory footing. The HPA will comprise an agreement between the Local Authority and the building owner for a period of years that permits Listed Building Consent to specified alteration (or extension, but not demolition) to a designated heritage asset or group of assets.

Listed Building Consent Orders (LCBOs)

LCBOs can be granted by the Secretary of State, following mandatory consultation with EH, to grant Listed Building Consent to specified works (again excluding demolition) to any designated heritage assets covered by the Order. In practice, this is intended to be relevant for standardised building types that might cross regions or Local Authority boundaries.

In my view, the application of these Orders should necessarily be limited, as there are few buildings that can be said to be so totally removed from their local or regional architectural and social context that individual works should not be individually assessed. However, the Canal & River Trust are currently piloting an LCBO scheme for the repair of standard canal locks.

Local Listed Building Consent Orders (LLBCOs)

As for national LBCOs above, the intention of the local orders is to permit Listed Building Consent for specified works of alteration or extension (not demolition) to specified designated heritage assets within a Local Authority’s area. Again, this should only be applicable where a ‘class’ of asset along with a set of predictable or repetitive works can be readily identified. In order to avoid inappropriate works carried out under a thinly-woven blanket consent, it will be absolutely vital that extensive historical analysis of the assets and their individual contexts  is undertaken for all the assets intended to be covered.

The measures above coming into force on 6 April 2014 can be added to those measures from the ERR Act that came into effect last year, which include the following:

Amendments to Listed Building Entries

As of 25 June 2013, it has been possible for new list entry descriptions or amendments to state that any given feature(s) of a listed building, or a structure forming part of it or its curtilage, is not of special interest.

Though the intention is again to reduce the number of LBC applications for elements of listed buildings that might be unremarkable, but the keen-eyed will realise that this is rather a perilous judgement. We are fairly well alerted these days that heritage fashion and appreciation ebbs and flows, care should be exercised that some building element is not simply written-off on the whims of the time. Experience would suggest that it is rather difficult to avoid such influence, which is why blanket listing enables careful consideration in each individual case.

Replacement of Conservation Area Consent

From 1 October 2013, the requirement for Conservation Area Consent for demolition of unlisted buildings within Conservation Areas has been removed and the application is now subsumed within a normal planning permission application.

Certificates of Immunity

From 25 June 2013, it has been possible for Certificates of Immunity to be applied for at any time, whereas previously this was only possible where the building was subject to a planning application.