On 8th March 2007, a government White Paper was launched on Heritage Protection for the 21st century to foreshadow a new Heritage Protection Act to replace or amend the current legislation – mainly the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.
In many ways this is something of a damp squib, as the main thrust has been very much trailed as, for example, in my Last Word in CA 207. The principal feature is the merging of the two different categories of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings, together with Historic Gardens and Battlefields, into a single designation system to be called the Register of Historic Buildings and Sites of England. It will be backed up by a Historic Assets Register, and anyone who wants to do work on their registered building will need Historic Assets Consent (replacing Listed Buildings Consent).
There are several subsidiary provisions. There is a provision for dealing with large properties, e.g. all London Underground stations, in a single Heritage Partnership Agreement, where a five year plan can be submitted and, if agreed, consent can be given for all the properties en bloc. The details are a little vague and one must wait and see whether it works or not.
Another major section makes provisions for Wales – but not for Scotland, which has entirely different legislation. There is also a major section tidying up all the various bits and pieces of legislation on maritime archaeology, broadening the range of marine sites that can be protected, and bringing the Receiver of Wreck (the traditional custodian of wrecks) into line by imposing a statutory duty to inform heritage bodies about marine heritage assets.
There is then a confused section on historic environment services at a local level. A welcome improvement is that it will impose a statutory duty on local authorities to provide Historic Environment Records. These are the old Sites and Monuments Records, now confusingly renamed, and it will be important to recognise the difference between the HAR – the Historic Assets Register, of the sites that have statutory protection, and the HERs maintained by local government which do not provide statutory protection and exist primarily to provide the local government officers with the information to enable them to work the PPG16 system. The problem is that local authorities all run their SMRs or HARs as we must now call them in different ways in different departments and with a different scope of contents. English Heritage will now be expected to whip them all into line. There is also a somewhat cryptic phrase which talks of ‘reforms in the way in which local authorities and voluntary organisations cooperate’.
The proposals seems to have gone down well with the heritage profession, but what about the other side of the picture, the owners of listed buildings? By far the majority of all historic buildings are owned by individuals, all of whom have to operate under the system. Hitherto the prestige of having one’s property ‘listed’ has outweighed the costs that are imposed in getting listed building consent. Yet there are indications that not all is well, and that the balance between property owner and buildings inspectors is getting out of kilter. The comments of the President of the Country Land Owners Association, of which a selection is reprinted opposite, are in this respect rather worrying. (And see their website.)
For property owners, two matters will be of interest. Firstly, in doing any alterations to a listed building, there are three hoops to jump through: listed buildings consent, planning permission, and then the buildings inspector. These three hoops still remain, and the main change in the White Paper, the merging of buildings and monuments, will be largely irrelevant, for few properties are both listed and scheduled. What is really needed is a merging of the historic buildings system with the planning system – preferably bringing in the buildings inspector as well. When I raised this, I was referred to Kate Barker’s controversial Review of Land Use Planning – controversial because it suggested a loosening of the green belt system. But if ever there is any serious re-think of the planning system, it could see a welcome merging of planning law and heritage protection laws.
And the second very major problem is the lack of any appeals system. The present system lacks any checks and balances: the conservation officers have virtually carte blanche to impose their tastes on the unfortunate landowner*. There is indeed talk of an appeals system, but this is only against the original listing – and then only to the Minister, who is scarcely independent in these matters and will obviously have a tendency to support her own civil servants. What is needed is a proper independent appeal system, headed by a judge, who will be able to adjudicate over the problems that arise between conservation officers and property owners.
It would be interesting to hear from readers of CA on this subject. I imagine many own or live in listed buildings: what are your experiences? Do I only hear from the disgruntled ones? Please send me your comments, by email or post, and I will happily publish a selection of them. It will be interesting to have a cross section on how the present system works.
* A good example is given in the Country Land and Business Association Member Survey: ‘I wanted to convert a Grade II barn with a high threshing door. The first council officer said it should be glass panelled. We drew up plans, with big glass panels. He left the job. His replacement looked at the plans, said there was too much glass, and that the doors should have windows set in boarding. In other words it was an issue of taste and nothing to do with the history of the building’.
This opinion comes from CA issue 209