The Case for Automatic Interim Protection During Listing

By Neil McKay, Architect and Director of Hoos Construction

In 2017, a rare and beautiful Jacobean ceiling in a Bristol townhouse was destroyed shortly before its proposed listing. Following this incident I started a petition [1] urging the government to introduce automatic interim protection for buildings which are under consideration for listing. This was previously proposed in the 2008 draft Heritage Protection bill, which was not enacted, apparently due to lack of parliamentary time in the wake of the financial crisis.[2]

Ornate plaster work removed to reveal roof joists
The Ornate Jacobean celling of 15 Small Street in Bristol, after the ceiling was partly ripped out by the developers © Historic England

Unsatisfied with this, in 2016 the Welsh Assembly introduced their own legislation, incorporating many of the measures proposed in the 2008 draft bill. The Welsh legislation appears to be both popular and effective. A National Assembly for Wales inquiry early in 2018 stated that, ‘the Act seems to be working well and as intended.’[3] And Cadw have stated that, ‘interim protection has not raised any particular opposition or controversy’ and ‘no compensation cases have arisen.’

So why has similar legislation still not been introduced in the rest of the UK?

The Raynsford Review identified recent governments as seeing planning as an, ‘anti-competitive activity and an unwarranted interference in the free market in land.’[4] If this statement is true in relation to planning in general, it is likely to be even more trenchantly held in relation to conservation of historic assets, despite their intrinsic value and the financial benefits they bring to the UK.[5] Further compounding the situation, the government is of course now consumed with Brexit.

Protection of our nation’s heritage is an issue which should cut across party political lines, so it is unfortunate that it is being needlessly compromised.

In the absence of automatic interim protection, I welcome Historic England’s proposal to encourage greater use of Building Preservation Notices (BPN). But unfortunately I believe it is at best a partial stop gap, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, BPN’s do not apply to all types of historic asset. For example, they cannot be used for archaeological sites, which are often at risk from farming or industrial activities.

Secondly, serving BPN’s places additional administrative burdens on local authorities. This alone may deter wider use in cases where there is no prior warning of significant risk.

And thirdly, fear of compensation claims is not the only factor that deters local authorities (LA) from serving BPN’s. In considering historic cases of loss during listing, some might plausibly have been averted had the indemnification scheme been in place at the time. For example, at the Blue Boys Inn in Kent it appears that fear of compensation was a significant factor.[6] But many others would almost certainly not have been prevented. In the cases of both the Firestone Building and Small Street, the LA’s were actively attempting to put protection in place, but were pre-empted by the owners’ actions. Only automatic, default protection might have prevented their destruction. And in yet other cases, such as the Carlton Tavern, there was no obvious prior reason to suspect that the building was at imminent risk.

Inside of Carlton Tavern pub, before demolition
Carlton Tavern, Maida Vale, London. Before demolition. © Historic England

I am therefore strongly of the view that automatic interim protection should be introduced across the UK at the earliest opportunity. This should include the following principles, in common with the 2008 draft bill and the Welsh legislation:

  • Temporary protection should automatically apply from the moment an application for listing or scheduling is made
  • Owners must have a right to be informed and consulted about the application
  • To prevent unnecessary burdens on owners, applications which have little apparent merit should be screened out as quickly as possible
  • Provision should be made for restricting listing to the part or parts of the historic asset which are of genuine interest

This legislation is long overdue, and most of the groundwork has already been laid by the abandoned 2008 Heritage Protection bill, and the successful Welsh Historic Environment Act. All indications are that it would incur little financial cost either to statutory bodies or to building owners, and would be unlikely to prove controversial.

References

[1] Give automatic interim protection to buildings proposed for listing

[2] Draft Heritage Protection Bill 2008 

[3] Past and Present Inquiry into the Historic Environment (April 2018): National Assembly for Wales Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee 

[4] Planning 2020: Raynsford Review of Planning in England (Final Report) 

[5] Heritage and the Economy

[6] The fascinating and long history behind the Blue Boys Inn - the abandoned eyesore next to the A21

Neil McKay
Neil McKay, Architect and Director of Hoos Construction

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