In Focus: Listed Building Restrictions and Alterations: an owner’s guide

Senior Heritage Adviser Jonathan Thompson delves into the restrictions placed on listed buildings and how best to manage this when taking on building work

Why are restrictions put on listed buildings?

Since the 1940s, and especially during the 1980s, governments have put buildings of ‘special architectural and historic interest’ on statutory lists, to protect them from demolition or other possible harm. There are now at least 600,000 ‘listed buildings’ in England alone. The regime was toughened in 1968, following widespread demolitions in 1960s urban redevelopments and change since then has needed ‘Listed Building Consent’ (LBC). It has been toughened again since the 1980s so that consent for demolition or clearly-harmful change is now very rare and any change is often minutely scrutinised.

Most people, including owners, support listing in principle. But when you own one of these listed buildings and have to pay the high costs of maintaining, managing, and insuring it, things can seem a bit different. This is especially if you find your local authority telling you what you can or can't do with your own building, sometimes sensibly, but sometimes with demands that seem subjective, unjustifiably expensive or erroneous.

How do you change a listed building?

Nearly every listed building owner, sooner or later, will need consent for works. Sadly, the system which handles consent has a poor reputation – owners with bad experiences compare it to Kafka or Dickens. It’s not surprising therefore that many owners approach this with trepidation and with a list of questions. CLA members manage at least a quarter of all listed buildings, so they often bring these questions to us: can I alter my building or extend it? What things are covered by the listing? What are the restrictions, the do’s and don’ts? Do I need LBC, and/or planning permission? Am I likely to get it? Is it easier for Grade II listed buildings? How can I navigate my way through the system?

Don’t be too reassured by the “85% approval rate” for LBC, many proposals are abandoned before they even become applications, let alone decisions; and many more are withdrawn or run into the sand before they reach a decision. A core problem is the lack of heritage staff in local authorities. The system was set up in 1968 on the basis that there would be half a dozen skilled “Conservation Officers” in every local authority. In reality, the system is being run with only one hard-pressed specialist or often none – and that is not going to change.

So how can I win through?

The good news is that despite the problems in local authorities, the system does, after years of CLA lobbying, now have a (mostly) sound foundation: the national planning policy in the heritage chapter of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The keys to success are to follow that planning policy, and to understand your listed building. You will then at least have a good compass and charts - as described in this article – before you sail your ship into the potentially choppy waters of the local planning authority. That may not guarantee an easy voyage, but you are much less likely to sink with all hands.

Understanding your listed building

Do not begin by drawing up proposals, or hiring an architect, or talking to your local authority.

The first – and crucial – step is to understand your listed building (and, where relevant, its surroundings). If you do not do that at the very beginning, at best, you will be on the back foot, pushed around – rightly or not – by the local authority, and at worst you can go expensively wrong.

Understanding the building does not just mean describing it, or its history, or its state of repair, though those might be important ingredients. Nor is it just reading the official list entry, usually brief (the entry for Canterbury Cathedral, one of the world’s most important buildings, until recently ran to just a few short sentences!) and very unlikely to be enough.

You need to begin by analysing the building’s ‘significance’: what really matters about it. ‘Significance’ is the term at the core of the NPPF policy, which is about ‘conserving’ significance – so you need to understand your building’s significance, so you know what you are conserving. Often it is obvious: the Jacobean front and the Georgian panelling are of high significance; the 1960’s uPVC conservatory is of negative significance. Sometimes, importantly, it is less obvious: in particular, the plan form of your vernacular cottage, or its wonky plasterwork with no right angles anywhere, may both be very significant.

Only after you have understood the significance, and put the gist of it on paper, can you begin to decide what you want to do, and how best to do it.

Developing your proposals

The next step is to ensure that your proposals take that significance fully into account – they must react to significance, not impose on it. Now – not before – you can bring in an appropriate architect or surveyor, equipped of course with the initial summary of significance.

What you can and can't do depends on the significance of what is being altered, the quality and nature of your works and their impact on significance, and on how well you explain all of this in your application.

You need to consider repair, and also to avoid unnecessary change – if you don’t need to replaster, or repoint, don’t. Where you do need to make changes, design them where possible in negative-significance or lower-significance or much-altered parts of the building which helps you to eliminate, or at least minimise, any ‘harm’ to significance.

In practice, as an example, careful repair, or replacing your 1970s bathroom or kitchen probably does not need consent (see below) if you can avoid anything of heritage significance. Carefully-considered changes should in principle get LBC, but in practice may hit unpredictable problems of subjectivity: for example, many local authorities prefer extensions to listed buildings to be in glass and steel, and react badly if you suggest traditional materials, but others take an opposite view (and indeed different officers in one local authority often hold differing views). Some changes – uPVC windows, significant demolition without a convincing reason, changes to thatching materials – are (rightly or wrongly) very unlikely to get consent.

The restrictions: what consents do you need?

If LBC is required, failing to get it is a criminal offence which can lead to prosecution and/or enforcement. There is no time limit on this. LBC is required for any physical work to anything covered by listing, if (but only if) the change would affect its ‘special interest’ (which in practice means much the same as ‘significance’). In practice, you should not need LBC if your work is like-for-like repair, or if it affects only parts of the building that are not of special interest. But otherwise, you will.

Planning permission is a separate requirement: it does not grant LBC, or vice versa, so you may need both, either, or neither. Planning permission is needed for ‘development’, or for a ‘material change of use’. Material change to the exterior of a building is ‘development’, but internal physical change is not. For some specific kinds of ‘development’, planning permission is granted automatically (under the General Permitted Development Order 2015, or in Wales the General Permitted Development Order 1995, as amended), though some (not all) of these ‘permitted development rights’ are suspended for listed buildings.

In practice, essentially, you only need to make a planning application (in addition to LBC, where applicable) if you are proposing a material change to the external appearance of a building, and/or other ‘development’ like new buildings or walls or fences, and/or a material change of use (unless, in each case, it is fully covered by permitted development as above). As examples, a change of use without any physical work would need only planning permission, substantial internal work to a listed building would need only LBC, but material external work to a listed building would need both (Windsor Castle fell foul of this in recent years, getting LBC but not planning permission, so you would not be alone)

You may also need other consents, especially Building Regulations approval, and bat surveys and licences.

What is covered by listing?

A potential trap is that listing can (sometimes) extend beyond the building. It covers the listed building itself, inside and out, including fixtures, but it can also cover other structures in the same ownership at the date of listing (even if not mentioned in the list description):

Local authorities often take a very expansionist approach to what is covered by listing, so it is a good idea to have worked out what is included before you make any approach to the local authority.

Getting consents

Having got your proposals together, your application will need a Heritage Analysis which explains the building’s heritage significance, explains your proposals, and explains their impact on that significance. It should clarify how you have eradicated any harm or show that any harm is more than justified by ‘public benefits’, which include benefits to the building and its habitability and viability, and which (importantly) do not have to be physically visible to the public. The analysis should be proportionate: important buildings or high-impact work may need detailed analysis, but simple low-impact work should only need a few paragraphs.

Historic England calls this the ‘staged approach’, but it has been advocated by the CLA – and by international conservation philosophy – for years.

If you follow this staged approach rigorously, your application should – in theory – sail through, and many do.

Can this go wrong?

As above, yes. That could, if you ignore this article, be your fault: if you apply for a minimalist ‘makeover’ of a listed building, using an architect with no heritage experience, if you have made no attempt to understand the building, if your proposals would eradicate its significance, and if the local authority cannot work out what you want to do, or why, it is your fault if you fail.

But often the problem lies in the local authority, its lack of skilled staff, or its taking a traditional and superseded ‘preservation in aspic’ approach, ignoring the NPPF policy. If, as above, you have understood the building’s significance, and produced a good proposal which takes that properly into account, then persevere. Local authorities can be very good at persuading you to withdraw, saving them having to take a decision, but if you do not withdraw, they cannot refuse consent without plausible and planning-relevant reasons for refusal, so you may get an approval - or, if they did refuse on heritage grounds, you should have a strong case at appeal.

Good luck!

Frequently asked questions

Where can I get more information?

This article gives only a simplified picture. CLA members have free access to advice, including extensive Guidance Notes on listed buildings and other heritage, written from an owner viewpoint, in the Advice section. Non-CLA-members can use the listed building guidance, not written from an owner viewpoint, on the website of Historic England (or Cadw in Wales).

Is Grade II easier than Grade I?

The great majority of listed buildings – more than 90% – are Grade II, the ‘lowest’ of the three grades, but the controls are, in principle, the same as for Grade I and II* listed buildings. The differences are that that the significance of a Grade II listed building will probably be lower, less information might be needed with an application, and Historic England is less likely to be involved, but the protection of Grade II buildings is taken almost as seriously as Grades I and II*.

Can you change the inside of a listed building?

Potentially yes, if you approach it in the right way, as above, but the listing covers the inside just as much as the outside, and ‘significance’ can often be found inside just as much as outside. Any work which affects ‘special interest’ inside needs LBC in the same way as for the outside, and the protection of interiors is taken as seriously as the protection of exteriors.

Do listed buildings cost more to insure?

Yes, because repair costs are higher, and timescales longer. If your listed building is a relatively standard building like a terraced house or cottage, it may be possible to keep costs down by covering it with normal insurance (declaring, obviously, that it is listed), but if it is complex or bigger you may need bespoke insurance, which is more expensive.

Key contact:

Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Senior Heritage Adviser