Pre-Emptive Demolition and Interim Protection

By Marcus Binney, Executive President of SAVE Britain's Heritage

SAVE has long been concerned about the danger of pre-emptive demolition of buildings under consideration for spot listing. The classic case was the destruction of the centrepiece of the famous 1930s art deco Firestone Factory on the Great West Road over the August bank holiday weekend in 1980.

Partially demolished white factory building with two men wearing hard hats looking on at the front of the building.
Demolition of the Firestone tyre factory in progress over the summer Bank Holiday weekend in the late 1970s © EDIFICE / Alamy Stock Photo

I personally witnessed the last swings of the wreckers' ball crashing into the fine tile work of the facade. This was self-evidently a vicious and malicious act carried out in great haste after the owners had got wind that the building might be listed the following week by the Secretary of State Michael Heseltine. It was clearly a panic reaction as the offices behind the facade windows had not been cleared of furniture, and employees returned to find their desks and equipment pummelled to pieces.

Another deliberate mutilation took place in Liverpool when ornamental detail was shaved off the main front of Josephine Butler House in the city centre in 2009 to ensure the building no longer qualified for listing. The building was eventually demolished. More recently in 2017 SAVE, along with several other national heritage organisations highlighted the loss of an early 17th century ornate ceiling in Bristol - demolished by the building owners ahead of a listing inspection by Historic England.

Spot listing in the past was carried out without consultation with the owner, a process which was broadly accepted though provoking occasional angry reactions. Change came when ministers decided owners should be given a chance to have a say and an opportunity to comment. At the time they recognised the real danger of pre-emptive demolition and undertook to put measures in place in the near future to prevent pre-emptive demolition during the 'waiting' period.

The current system has worked in the majority of cases but there has been a steady stream of owners determined to clear their sites for development who have seized the opportunity to pre-empt any listing. Lamentably, ministers have failed to honour their promises to rebalance the situation.

The obvious and simple remedy is that as soon as an owner receives notice that his or her building is under consideration for listing, they are also told it is under the same protection as a listed building until a decision is taken.

This system is in operation in Wales with no reports of specific criticism or objection. The owner anyway has the opportunity to apply for a certificate of immunity against listing giving them a guarantee of no further listing requests for up to five years.

In our view an unnecessary stalemate regarding interim protection has developed. Action is needed now.

Marcus Binney
Marcus Binney, Executive President of SAVE Britain's Heritage

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