Confessions of a Conservation Officer
By David McDonald, President, Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC)
Of course, the threat of compensation will always be a disincentive for local planning authorities to serve Building Preservation Notices. Indemnity against a claim of compensation can only help to rectify this, but finance is not always at the heart of the matter as the following two examples will illustrate.
Example number one may be familiar to others. In the late 1980s British Telecom (BT) decided that their 1930s telephone kiosks were rather old-fashioned and did not meet the needs of their customers. BT then embarked on a rapid programme of replacement. No permission was required from the local planning authority and BT was in no mood to negotiate.
At that time I led the Conservation and Design Team at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Having been alerted to the imminent removal of these classic Giles Gilbert Scott kiosks, and with the agreement of the Director of Planning, I set about preparing a number of Building Preservation Notices (BPN). Thanks to a supportive Chairman of the Planning Committee and fast work by the Borough Solicitor, I had the opportunity, in the language of local newspapers, to ‘slap a preservation notice’ on the identified kiosks.
To my relief, all the kiosks which had been subject to the BPN were added to the statutory list. I must admit that today, it still gives me a warm feeling to see the pair of BPN’d K6 kiosks in Sloane Square. They are such an iconic part of London’s townscape. There may have been a compensation issue here, but the view was taken that it was necessary to save these structures which had clear architectural quality and were intrinsic to the character of the Royal Borough.
Fast forward 20 years or so, and a proposal to redevelop a modest 1950s house by architect Leonard Manasseh situated in the Kensington Conservation Area (see photograph). In part prompted by a recently published architectural monograph on Manasseh, an application had been made to English Heritage (now Historic England) to list the building. In between the application for listing and a decision being taken, a number of architectural features were removed, including the main staircase. This was clearly a factor in the eventual decision not to list the property.
The question arises, should the local planning authority, knowing the potential threat, have stepped in and served a BPN? My own view was that this modest house, though interesting in many ways was not a clear cut case of meeting the high standards required to merit being added to the statutory list. This was the main reason for not pursuing a BPN, but also in my mind was the potential lack of political or widespread public support for listing this rather plain example of 1950s architecture. Again, though the threat of compensation might have been an issue, there were other factors at play, not least the potential controversy around the listing of Post War buildings.
As I have indicated above, the potential of indemnity against compensation may give local planning authorities some confidence in proceeding with serving a BPN, but as the examples have illustrated, there are other factors involved. We also need to take into account the reduction in the number conservation officers employed by local planning authorities (about a third since the recession). Not only are there fewer staff overall to prepare the notices, but fewer with the necessary skills.
At the end of the day, indemnity against compensation claims can only be one weapon in the armoury of devices to preserve our built heritage. It does not make up for the lack of interim protection when a formal application for listing is made. That would be a regulatory reform truly worthy of support. After all if it can be done in Wales, why not in England?
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