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The cost of conservation

17 November 2017

A report published last month on listed building and conservation areas has revealed not only the additional energy costs of ownership, but also how such buildings may impinge upon the UK’s ability to hit its carbon targets. The why is obvious. Given the planning and building controls that operate ‘against’ listed buildings and those in conservation areas, the opportunity to upgrade the fabric particularly is curtailed – and thus denies homeowners the opportunity to fit energy saving measures such as double glazing or cavity wall insulation.

 

The economic effect means that such property owners’ energy costs are £240 higher than would otherwise be the case – which arguably represents bills 18% higher than the norm. In the seven years considered by the report – from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE – these missed savings accrue to a whopping £3.8bn!

 

One caveat one would add to those numbers is that for every listed cosy village cottage, there’s likely a bloomin’ manor house or former mill that a) will be huge and b) and a beggar to heat at the best of times – improved or not – which will distort the figures upwards.

 

And because residential properties make up 13% of UK emissions, the effective ‘decarbonisation’ of homes is critical to the UK meeting its carbon targets and such ‘protected’ properties, 10% of the total, are something of a drag on this.

 

Now before the timber wonks start crying that those nasty PVC-U people want to put their horrid plastic windows into Hardwick Hall, up the road from us, let’s consider some potentially complicated issues around this subject as it can get quite nuanced.

 

First, no-one is suggesting that truly historic buildings are modernised in this way. There are just shy of 375,000 listed buildings in England (apologies Scotland and Wales) and 2.5% – 9,375 – are Grade I, the highest ranking. Let’s forget about those – Hardwick Hall included – straight away.

 

Of the remaining 364,000, 5.5% as – 20,000 – are Grade II*. While obviously some of these may lend themselves to home improvements, for the sake of argument and to avoid controversy, let’s strip those out too.

 

So, we’re left with 344,000 Grade II properties that may or may not be suitable for energy efficiency improvements; plus the many, many other homes in conservation areas.

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Yet let’s first look at a few misconceptions regarding listing and conservation areas. It is surprising how many people believe that listing only applies to a feature or element of a property. That is to say: if a clutch of cottages is listed for their streetscape ‘group value’ – the listing may actually say that no internal inspection was available – then the owners can do what they like to the interiors. Or if a property has been listed because the kitchen contains a medieval hearth or an early example of a cast iron range; then it doesn’t matter what the owners do beyond preserving that.

 

Wrong: listing is like a stick of rock and it goes right through a building so that means – depending when it occurred – that a nasty 1980s avocado ‘shell’ suite in the bathroom or the tired and outdated MFI kitchen are equally as protected.

 

Similarly, there is often an assumption that a Conservation Area designation inevitably includes the withdrawal of “permitted development rights” – the opportunity to carry out home improvements more-or-less as the owner sees fit – whereas it does not. In fact, many councils are quite vague about this and do not exercise the additional powers available under planning legislation to control changes that might usually be allowed without planning permission in other locations, for example changing the appearance of windows, adding external cladding or putting up satellite dishes.

 

Very often, one sees the assertion that works “may” need permission without absolutely stating that they do, and the assumption is that the authority is hoping the reader infers that it is needed, and modifies their behaviours accordingly.  In the main, it is only conservation areas with an Article Four Direction under the Town & Country Planning Act that are worth the name (although an Article Four Direction is not necessary a conservation designation per se).

 

So, in these misconceptions lies the difficulty in upgrading protected buildings – it is an uncertain process, very often subject to the vagaries of any given council’s attitudes to planning or the individual whims – or zealotry – of a conservation officer.

 

Taking the avocado shell suite or MFI kitchen above, it is not unheard of for a conservation officer to resist the removal of these because they show the evolution of property usage and/ or changes in interior design style and tastes. Likewise, objections to PVC-U window replacements in conservation areas may be either unenforceable or founded in knee-jerk snobbery against the material, irrespective of design; or whether they impact upon the aesthetic of the property or harm the ‘group value’ of a location. It’s just no, regardless.

 

One planning officer of acquaintance describes his council members and conservation officers as ‘Bananaas’ (sic). Not that they’re mad: more it’s an extreme form of NIMBYism – ‘Beggar All Not Anywhere Not At All’: they just refuse everything and anything, especially that which smacks of modernisation or modernity.

 

And this is where the report’s co-author makes a clarion call for pragmatism in the energy efficiency context. As above, he found that energy use in protected homes fell by less than the national average between 2006 and 2013, “because energy-saving strategies like installing double-glazed UPVC windows and cavity wall insulation are barred or difficult to gain approval for”.

 

He continues: "Preservation policies play an important role in protecting our historic buildings but our research shows that there is a trade-off, and the [report] results highlight that preservation policies have inadvertently hindered some households from cutting down their energy use and their bills”.

“The government's Clean Growth Strategy plans a number of measures to improve the energy efficiency of our homes but neglects the role of restrictions that make it difficult to achieve this in homes covered by preservation policies. Reducing emissions from homes could become increasingly unrealistic if preservation policies make it costly or even impossible to improve energy efficiency. Ten per cent of the UK's housing stock is subject to preservation polices, so it is a significant issue”.

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Among the solutions proposed is the placing of limits on the numbers of properties that can be newly designated as listed or in a Conservation Area, or the introduction of new powers for local authorities to relax preservation policies to allow more energy efficiency retrofits to go ahead.  

 

We find it difficult to disagree with either of those suggestions, yet neither serves to remove the subjectivity from the process – as within an authority where two different conservation officers might have wildly differing positions on identical measures – whereby one person’s hideous chocolate brown bathroom suite is another’s architectural interior design gem needing the full force of planning law to protect it.

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