It’s a challenging time to be a custodian of a heritage asset. Rising energy costs, pressure to reduce carbon emissions and retrofit traditional buildings, increased costs of construction work, and difficulty in finding skilled crafts people, all contribute to making the preservation of historic estates very difficult. This is compounded by a planning system which is no longer fit for purpose, with inconsistent approaches across Local Authorities and unworkable timescales.
As a society, we place great value on heritage, of which privately owned historic houses and estates are a key component. So, what needs to change to support owners in making their buildings and estates financially and environmentally sustainable? Paddock Johnson, Emery Planning and Combermere Abbey invited a group of historic property owners to debate the challenges they continue to face and share ideas about how a new approach to planning and listed building consent could support rather than hinder historic building owners in their attempts to secure the future of our heritage assets.
What are the planning challenges most often encountered when seeking to change or develop our historic houses and estates and how can these be mitigated?
Since 1900, 1,200 country houses have been demolished in England. Following WW2, the concept of listing buildings was introduced to identify the nation’s important historic buildings and subsequently seek to protect them from demolition and irreversible alterations. This has evolved into an overly restrictive and complex system that is threatening to sabotage the very thing it was designed to protect. Estate and historic building owners are finding themselves in a position where it is becoming extremely challenging to future proof their assets.
The current planning system makes it unnecessarily difficult for historic buildings to become sustainable due to conflict within planning and conservation policies and the subjectivity associated with the application of these policies. In many cases, alterations are necessary to facilitate the preservation of the building, bring their use into the 21st century or make them more energy efficient. However, there is often a prevailing view amongst conservation officers that all change is harmful and an unwillingness to be pragmatic when considering the benefits change can have on the long-term sustainability of heritage assets. The status quo all too often seems focused on finding reasons not to grant approval, this being the simple, less risky decision. The notion of planning balance and the requirement to assess the benefits, access harms and weigh them all up to arrive at a decision seems to be misunderstood in many cases.
“We need to be allowed to deliver a vision for our estates that will create a legacy and sustain the properties for future generations of our family and the public to learn about and enjoy. This fear of change puts us in danger of going too far the other way by blocking all development, even when it is in the best interest of the estate and the local community.” Sarah Callander Beckett - Combermere Abbey
Historic estates have always evolved over time, with each generation making their mark as needs and tastes change. This evolving story is often visible in the architecture and forms an important aspect of the heritage, connecting us to past people, events and ways of life, and yet in the C20 and C21 a preference for freezing heritage assets in time or even reverting back to a particular period in history seems to have become prevalent.
“We must make our buildings more sustainable but we consistently hit blockages and delays that slow improvements being made. Historic estates and buildings have continually evolved over the centuries, why are we now trying to freeze them in time.” Candice Roundell - Dorfold Hall
Preservation of our nation’s heritage is important and yet it is far from a level playing field across the UK. There is a severe lack of consistency with regard to planning policy application across different Local Authorities. Where one local authority may support replacement of single glazing with slimline double-glazed units, another will oppose double glazing of any type. Similarly, appeal decisions can be inconsistent with inspectors forming different conclusions when it comes to determining whether the benefits of solar pv’s outweigh the harm of their installation. There needs to be more consistency in decision making. The current approach is too subjective, and legislation needs to change.
In addition to inconsistency, planning and listed building consent applications need to be processed within an appropriate time frame. Statutory timescales for determining applications are rarely met and with no regulator overseeing local authorities, applicants are left with few options in terms of escalating complaints when applications are taking 6, 9, 12 months to be determined. Often procrastination over difficult decisions puts challenging projects into the ‘too difficult to decide’ pile, which results in long delays and increasing costs which ultimately is putting our heritage assets at risk.
The communication between many Local Authorities and applicants has broken down, with officers impossible to contact. The ability to pick up the phone and have open and honest conversations, allowing issues to be resolved quickly has been lost. Frustrated and desperate, some owners may resort to progressing work without concluding the planning process and are then made to feel like criminals when a formal enforcement notice arrives.
“We are in grave danger of losing important elements of the planning process. The ability to have a conversation with the planning team to discuss the feasibility of what might be achieved seems to have gone from many authorities. Critically the ability to utilise a mediation process to agree the best solution for the estates and local communities is much reduced.“ Caroline Payne - Emery Planning
Skills and experience amongst conservation officers varies significantly, as do the criteria for being appointed in the role. A job description advertising for the role of conservation officer at one local authority worryingly noted the following as the only essential requirements for the role;
- GCSE Qualifications
- Experience of writing reports
- Experience of successful negotiation in your
- current or previous employment.
- The postholder must be able to perform to a
- satisfactory standard in all the key result areas
- as set out in their job description.
- Basic knowledge of heritage as it pertains to
- the assessment of Planning Applications and applications for Listed Building Consent.
With a relevant degree and full membership of the IHBC noted only as desirable! To be fair to the local authorities at the salaries being offered for the role, they can hardly expect anything more.
Why does this matter? After all, Historic England are a statutory consultee in the planning process and surely their opinion carries greater weight. Often planning officers and conservation officers will look to Historic England to guide their opinion however, not always and it’s not unheard of for the conservation officer and Historic England to reach different conclusions. And that’s in relation to Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings, Historic England are not obliged to comment on applications for Grade II listed buildings unless they involve demolition, leaving many applicants reliant on the opinion of one individual conservation officer.
The knowledge required to assess applications adequately can vary hugely, depending on building age, typology, and the specific issues present. If conservation officers were assigned to projects based on matching their experience and areas of expertise with applications, surely this would be better for the heritage assets.
“We are the custodians of these wonderful properties, and we bought Crossley Hall because heritage buildings deserve care and investment. We need to be able to have open and honest conversations with planning and conservation officers to sustain and future proof these beautiful buildings and their history." Caroline Ryder - Crossley Hall
“Local Authorities should be looking for ways to better support historic estates in securing their future for the benefit and enjoyment of all. Our intention for Biddulph Old Hall was always to gift it back, allowing public access, but the right support mechanisms just aren’t in place, at present, to allow us to do this.” Brian Vowles - Biddulph Old Hall
What are the barriers to decarbonisation and retrofitting our heritage assets in line with government targets for achieving net zero carbon and what needs to change?
When the UK Government announced the enforced target for all buildings to reach Net Zero Carbon by 2050, this included historic estates and heritage assets, whether businesses or households. To reach this target there needs to be a massive reduction in UK greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions.
Typical retrofit solutions such as fabric upgrades and renewable technology introduction come with additional challenges when it comes to listed buildings, not least the requirement for planning and listed building consent.
Every estate and historic building is different and will require a different approach to improving energy efficiency. However, whatever the approach it is likely that significant changes will be required to incorporate new technologies and upgrade the historic fabric if the government targets are to be met. Currently, little weight is being given to sustainability benefits and the current climate crisis when making decisions with many owners coming
up against opposition when trying to introduce green technologies. It is disappointing that the latest iteration of the National Planning Policy Framework, under section 16. Conserving and enhancing the historic environment makes no reference to improving the environmental sustainability of heritage assets. Refusal to allow change directly opposes the UK Government’s target of making heritage assets Net Zero Carbon.
Tried and tested green technologies such as air source heat pumps, photovoltaics or biomass boilers are all likely to have a visual effect and therefore an impact on the heritage asset but what is the alternative? For fabric upgrades to be effective a whole building approach is required which in historic buildings is likely to be too disruptive and result in loss of historic finishes and fabric, which is unlikely to be acceptable by local authorities or property owners therefore compromise is needed.
Estates need to be able to capitalise on assets such as land and think innovatively. Solar farms for example require large areas of land and whilst have a high visual impact are physically low impact, and they can easily be removed leaving the land untouched in the future. However, owners who have pursued this route face significant opposition not least from local objectors. There needs to be a balance, we can’t sit back and do nothing.
“We don’t want to ‘harm’ our estates we want to find ways in which we can become greener, more sustainable estates. Making them a centrepiece and thriving hub in the local community! Local Authorities should have a vested interest in supporting the custodians of historic estates by using national conservation experts to help make the right decisions about alterations and developments that are consistent with decisions made about other estates around the country.” Charles Roundell - Dorfold Hall
As was demonstrated by our group of custodians, they are passionate about making their buildings and estates more sustainable and many are thinking innovatively to come up with different ways this can be achieved and pushing hard to realise ambitions despite the challenges. A few examples include;
The Thornbridge Estate has a brewery and bi- products from the brewery currently go to feed animals on and off the Estate. The brewery buildings also have PV Solar panels on the roof. The brewery not only contributes to the character and sense of place but supports the creation of jobs and a brand for the Thornbridge Estate as being a central and important part of the local community.
Crossley Hall uses biomass and solar but in the renovation of the main house also insulated the walls during repairs. This has resulted in smaller rooms, but Crossley Hall has an EPC rating A!
Dorfold Hall introduced multiple solutions from ground and air source heating, to keeping chickens & bees. As well as planning to reinstate one of the walled gardens as a source of seasonal produce they are also working towards a greener more sustainable estate that’s in tune with the seasons and nature.
“Creating the brand and vision for the estate has really helped define how and what we do at Thornbridge to sustain its future. We have carved out a unique destination and safe haven for visitors 7 days a week. Our award-winning brewery and estate shine a spotlight on Derbyshire both nationally and internationally." Jim Harrison - Thornbridge Hall
Helping custodians of heritage assets achieve Net Zero Carbon by 2050 will need to be a team effort. Allowing sensible alterations to heritage assets and having a nationally consistent approach to planning and conservation decisions are both critical.
Is enabling development a realistic proposition for financial sustainability?
Making our historic buildings and estates environmentally and financially sustainable often requires huge investment. Relatively few owners have the financial means to maintain and run their assets without the property generating its own income and that’s before repairs are brought into the equation, therefore for many it is imperative that their property is more than just a private family home.
Once buildings are vacant it doesn’t take long for a historic building to transform from an asset to a liability, as the cost to bring it back into use escalates, along with the risks of encountering unknowns in the process. Enabling the right kind of development and finding the optimum viable use is the only real way to preserve heritage assets and provide an opportunity to create financial sustainability. The reality is this may involve carving parcels of land off for development or converting parts of the estate for new uses. Using vacant ancillary buildings or parts of the main building, or developing on land within the curtilage of the listed building can be difficult to justify in terms of harm to significance which is where enabling development comes in. Acknowledging that to secure the long-term future of some assets, a degree of harm is unavoidable.
Unfortunately, as with other aspects of the planning system, enabling development applications are extremely complex with significant investment required to prepare the necessary documentation to be submitted as part of the application. An investment which is at significant risk given the possibility approval may never be granted. And, as with other heritage-related applications there seems to be too much scope for subjectivity in the decision-making process with the planning officer deciding whether proposals would bring about public benefits sufficient to justify the work being carried out.
Often owners of historic buildings and estates making enabling development applications are made to feel like ‘greedy’ developers, out to make huge profits with no consideration of the impact on the heritage asset. Applicants often face significant local opposition with formal planning objections and petitions which seem to further encourage the planning officer down the route of refusal or the too- difficult-to-decide pile. This culture of nimbyism is particularly prevalent when enabling development proposes new homes, which is the obvious use to propose given it provides the maximum revenue potential to be gained from an asset.
Enabling applications can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to prepare and submit and then sit in planning for years with no decision being reached, compounding the very problems enabling development is designed to solve. Change is needed and quickly!
“We need a more consistent approach for reviewing all proposed developments and accountability for the length of time taken to make decisions. Owners and custodians shouldn’t be spending more that 50% of the value of the work on the planning process!” Peter Beckett - Combermere Abbey
A new approach to historic building and estate controls.
For centuries, custodians of historic estates have remodelled, demolished, rebuilt their ancestral homes to respond to social change and make their estates relevant in an ever-changing world. Whether you take a keen interest in social history or not, England’s historic buildings and homes tell stories of our past and how we continue to evolve as a society. The historic environment of the UK makes many positive contributions to modern life. Both in place shaping and creating a sense of identity, improving wellbeing and health and its contribution to UK GDP as a driver of overseas tourism.
Owners of historic estates very much see themselves as custodians of important pieces of everyone’s heritage and history. They have already and continue to invest their own funds into saving and future proofing heritage assets so they can be enjoyed by future generations and continue to retell history, but this is becoming more and more difficult due to rising costs and a painful approval system for undertaking work.
What are the solutions?
- Liaising with Historic England on the challenges
- identified and pushing a new approach to endorse the relaxation of current restrictions and increase the sustainability of all listed buildings.
- Deliver a Green Paper and new legislation produced through bringing key allied organisations together to agree on parameters for permitted development of estates and buildings to safeguard the heritage in a financially sustainable way in line with Net Zero Carbon ambitions. Key stakeholders would include Historic England, Historic Houses Association, National Trust, Gardens Trust amongst others.
- Create a central ‘pool’ of conservation officers working across multiple local authorities who are assigned applications based on relevant experience and expertise
- Omit the role of local authority conservation
- officers and increase the remit of Historic England to be the sole consultee on applications involving a heritage asset.
- Create an Office for Standards in Planning where Local Authorities are audited and scored, with performance available online so applicants can be informed before deciding to make an application.
- A full reform of the planning system and processes.
There needs to be a greater understanding of the role private historic buildings and estate owners play in safeguarding the nation’s heritage for future generations. They need to be supported as custodians, acknowledging the significant private investment being made which has proven and substantial economic benefits for wider society.
Just as historic estates have adapted to social change in the past they need to be allowed to again if they are to survive and thrive!
CONTRIBUTORS TO THE DISCUSSION INCLUDED:
- Brian Vowles – Biddulph Old Hall
- Candice Roundell – Dorfold Hall
- Caroline Payne – Emery Planning
- Caroline Ryder – Crossley Hall
- Charles Roundell – Dorfold Hall
- Jim Harrison – Thornbridge Hall
- Louise Garforth – Paddock Johnson
- Martin Ryder – Crossley Hall
- Olivia Cridland – Thornbridge Hall
- Peter Beckett – Combermere Abbey
- Sarah Callander Beckett – Combermere Abbey
- Victoria Millward - Paddock Johnson