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New Powers in Historic Places: a Case Study at Port Sunlight

The development of one of the first Local Listed Building Consent Orders at Port Sunlight, the Wirral.

Recent  legislation  has  aimed  to  simplify  the  processes  surrounding  the granting  of listed  building  consent.  The  Enterprise  and  Regulatory  Reform  Act  2013,  for example,  brought  with  it  a  range  of  new  tools,  including  the  Local  Listed  Building Consent Order (LLBCO).

Victorian photograph of Tudor style houses in Bridge Street, Port Sunlight, Wirral
8‒-14 Bridge Street, Port Sunlight in 1896 © Historic England Archive

An LLBCO enables a local planning authority to grant listed building consent for specified works to designated buildings within their area. For example, this might include common works such as kitchen fittings within a large, listed housing estate. The intention being that routinely consented works of a similar nature can be undertaken with less time and resource.

At first glance, this may seem fairly straightforward. The reality is that this is a relatively new power, and there is a great deal to be learned from early examples of its use. While a number of interesting cases are being developed, very few LLBCOs are up and running today: there is one, for example, at Little Germany in Bradford, and one in the model village of Port Sunlight, on the Wirral.

Aerial view of Port Sunlight, 1934.
Aerial view of Port Sunlight, 1934. © Britain from Above

A unique development

Port Sunlight holds a special place in English history. In 1888 successful entrepreneur William Hesketh Lever began construction of a new factory for the production of his Sunlight brand of soap. But his ambitions went considerably further than a new factory: he wanted to create a model village, not only to house his workers, but also to enrich their lives by providing education and a good quality living environment.

The resulting settlement blended two ideals: the improvement of working-class living conditions (already seen, for example at New Lanark and Saltaire) and the Picturesque taste for organic layouts and appealing vistas. Indeed, Port Sunlight was a showpiece of the emerging trend for entrepreneurial social responsibility, embodying many of the wider social values of its era as well as the latest ideas in model village design.

Today, the Port Sunlight Village Trust manages the green spaces and many of the principal buildings and houses of the settlement. The whole village is a conservation area, within which virtually every building is listed. This reflects its significance, but also raises real questions about how to manage change effectively and efficiently in such a special place.

The consent process in Port Sunlight had real time and resource implications for both the local planning authority and the trust. For homeowners too, there was an opportunity for greater clarity about best practice. Two  central objectives, then, drove the creation of the Port Sunlight LLBCO: reduce strain on the local planning authority for commonly consented works, and empower listed building owners to address poor or unconsented works to their homes.

With this in mind, the order focussed on three main areas:

  • the installation and/or relocation of satellite dishes in certain locations
  • the replacement of severely deteriorated or inappropriate back-yard gates and rear doors
  • specified replacements for some types of severely deteriorated or inappropriate rear windows

Those who have dealt with historic window frames and fittings will already have spotted the most complex of these three. This is rightly a detail-orientated area, and in a place which has many listed buildings, and where these have been designed by a range of different architects, it is a real challenge to achieve efficiency through a blanket consent system without losing individual character . It is equally a challenge to make such a system straightforward for owners to understand and use. Both the trust and Wirral Council put a great deal of thought and effort into this issue.

Indeed, Port Sunlight Village Trust and Wirral Council worked in partnership throughout the development of the LLBCO, supported by grant funding and advice from Historic England.

The process of developing the order was complex. It involved a great deal of thinking about what made the area special, what its key issues were, and how efficiency could best be achieved. Various tasks were involved: identifying problems, reviewing parameters, working through possible scenarios, going through the processes of consultation and community engagement, getting specialist input, drafting the text. Detailed window surveys were required, as well as the subsequent identification of window types. Needless to say (and quite rightly) the timescales of the project changed to accommodate these processes.

The Dell Bridge from Park Road, Port Sunlight, Wirral
The Dell Bridge from Park Road, Port Sunlight, 1994 © Historic England

Lessons learned

The Port Sunlight LLBCO is now live. As one of the first implementations of a relatively new form of consent, much can be learned from it. Early lessons are already clear, and more will be revealed as the process is reviewed:

  • establish the need. The development of the Port Sunlight LLBCO took considerable time and effort. For such a measure to achieve the desired efficiency savings, make sure first that there is a history of frequently consented works which such an order could seek to address
  • partnerships are vital. In this case, teamwork between the Port Sunlight Village Trust and Wirral Council played a key role in unlocking the potential of the LLBCO
  • balance flexibility with efficiency. Particularly with more complex works (such as those to windows), flexibility is necessary if the LLBCO can respond to and conserve the character of individual buildings. On the other hand, the LLBCO has to be easy to understand and implement if owners are going to use it and the local authority is going to save resources
  • be prepared to adapt. A useful way of identifying potential problems, one which may lead to significant changes to an LLBCO, is to run through possible scenarios that could emerge after implementation. Periodic review of the finished order also plays an important role, and can be used to expand the scope of the LLBCO as well as to fine-tune its processes. For example, the current LLBCO includes only the most common window-types at Port Sunlight, and it is hoped that others will be incorporated over time
  • make the best use of associated benefits. There were several of these, including a better understanding of how best to conserve the area’s buildings; the positive addressing of unauthorised works; the improvement of local relationships; the greater clarity achieved for homeowners; and the improvement of craft skills.

Of course, no two sites are the same and perhaps some of the key factors at Port Sunlight were specific to the site: the nature of what makes it so interesting; the conservation issues it presents; the opportunities it offers; the people involved. Would an LLBCO work as well in a Georgian terrace? In a housing estate? What would the implications be for post-war buildings? Ultimately, the LLBCO will not be an effective tool at all sites. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the right circumstances these orders can bring real benefits.

 

Christiana Sinclair

Author

Christina R M Sinclair MSc MA BA(Arch) is an Acting Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas for Historic England. She joined the organisation in 2013, with a background in architectural design, conservation and town planning. She worked with the Project Assurance Officer for the Port Sunlight LLBCO and provided ongoing advice during its development.

 

Further reading

Historic England advice pages on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013

Historic England’s advice note on drawing up an LLBCO

The Port Sunlight LLBCO is now live, available at the Wirral local authority website.

The Port Sunlight Village Trust website. 

The Little Germany LLBCO, available through the Bradford local authority website.

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