Once again, a cool breeze blew across the Thames and over the Terrace at The House of Commons, it reminded me of the last time I stood there at the invitation of MP Craig Mackinlay and The Listed Property Owners Clubs, that was July 2017, then in a much different temperature.
On reflection both proved to be warm nights but for very different reasons. This, my most recent visit, on this fifth of November, well, what an emotion laden date of all to be in such surroundings; and emotions were running high all these years on, but with different purpose in mind.
A little earlier I had stood in a queue under the watchful eyes of Sir Oliver Cromwell. He would have been six years old at the time of Catesby’s plot that forever welded the name of Guy Fawkes into our lives. His statue’s inscrutable gaze never wavered at the sounds of Brexit cawing from opposing factions outside the railings. Behind Cromwell reared Parliament, a Grade I Listed edifice, partly clad in scaffolding, a wonderful venue for the meeting ahead, topical in every sense.
How much have we changed in the centuries in-between? How much has our landscape altered? What changes will be wrought in years to come?
A desire for change of a particular process was at the heart of the evenings meeting.
For those of you who don’t know of it, The Listed Property Owners Club is a veritable resource of information and advice for anyone with a period home and especially for those who own a listed building. If you are an owner or have a passion for old buildings and you’re not a member, you probably should be!
The club was founded by Peter Anslow and, for around twenty five years, it has been building a knowledge base and providing assistance to owners of listed buildings. ‘Since 2013, Peter has also been an active political campaigner supporting the owners of Britain’s half-a-million or so listed homes through The Listed Property Owners’ Club’s Political Campaign for Owners. In 2016, the Political Campaign achieved a major victory when, thanks to its ongoing efforts, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Listed Properties was officially recognised.’
This specific evening on the terrace was designed to give a voice to members, to hear a little about the ongoing purpose of the campaign and to raise questions and concerns to assist the APPG in its purpose.
Helen Whately, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, attended and spoke passionately on related topics including an alternative form of listing on a community level. ‘Local people will be empowered to nominate heritage buildings which are important to them and reflect their local area and identity in the most ambitious local heritage campaign for 40 years‘. A subject that may have raised mixed feelings in the room.
VAT relief, or the lack of it, for works that require Listed Buildings permission was a likely candidate for a popular topic but, in fact, the theme of the evening revolved passionately around the issue of consistency amongst Listed Buildings officers in council planning teams.
Austerity measures have affected all walks of life and frustrations were evident where, in some cases, it seems the role was no longer filled by a specialist. Perceived lack of experience of officers, inconsistencies with interpretation of regulations from area to area and delays with paperwork and process that could and had resulted in damage to properties because works couldn’t be carried out, all brought heated comments from members of the audience.
My personal experience of Listed Buildings Officers has generally been that they are enthusiastic lovers of period buildings and history, they are human beings and, let’s face it, none of us are perfect, but generally I have found them to be helpful. The challenge some face is being ‘piggy in the middle’, caught between owners desires for improvement, changes in modern living, a rigid building regulations system which focus’s upon modern construction methods and materials, a desire to preserve history and a national planning system that has to cope with historic methods from timber framed homes, to cob and mundic block and can be in direct contradiction with building regulations.
Can a national standard be set to guide local planning in relation to listed buildings?
If members of planning departments are being tasked with dealing with Listed Buildings and they do not have the correct training and/or experience, something is terribly wrong and no-one will benefit.
The All Party Parliamentary Group has significant support already. The Listed Property Owners Club are working tirelessly to raise awareness and bring about improvements and, any and all support they receive, is gratefully received. Like everything in life, the more people who make their voice heard, who ask for practical and sensible change, the more the likelihood of good coming from it.
Our history is not only our heritage, it is our future, it is part of UK PLC and our tourism industry, it is part of our psyche as a nation, of our personality and those who own listed buildings are custodians. The majority of them welcome that role, relish the joy of life in these homes, but they do want the process of caring for these sometimes complex buildings to be made simpler.
A more transparent fairer system of preserving the fabric, of progressing works, something that facilitates rather than hinders, will assist homeowners and it will simplify planning departments roles, plus it will preserve those delightful scenes we love to see and photograph, our national heritage, the backdrops to many ‘selfies’.
Next time you drive around or take a walk, look closer at the homes you see, think of which ones may be listed and ask yourself, how would it feel if these weren’t cared for?
While you are doing so, ask yourself another question: If the building of new homes enjoys a zero VAT rating, to encourage development for our future, is it so much to ask that some assistance is provided to those who preserve our past? It may not be a topic that will elect a government, but the impact will affect future generations and in a positive way.
If you own a listed building and would like to find out more about the owners club take a look at their website here.
For information on the campaign, who is involved and how you may assist please look here.
Thank you again to The Listed Property Owners Club and to MP Craig Mackinlay for an excellent and informative evening.
You can read our opening article on the campaign here.