An agent is not expected to be expert on this subject, but a decent background knowledge on the implications of buying and owning a listed building is essential if you are to advise vendors and buyers appropriately.
For some buyers, owning a listed building is an honour; it makes them a custodian of our heritage. It can, however, also be a nuisance, especially if they want to make changes.
It is not just the exterior of a building that is listed. The entire interior, including hidden areas such as the loft, and all the exterior up to and including the formal garden boundaries is included. This means garden walls are just as important as a natural slate roof, and listed building consent will be required for any changes or repairs that affect these elements.
The difference between planning consent and listed building consent
Listed building consent is required for any works that affect a listed building. Applications for listed building consent ensure that special consideration is given to the effect of proposed works on the architectural or historic interest of a building in isolation. Planning permission, on the other hand, considers wider national and local planning policy and the impact of the proposed works on the immediate area, matters such as parking, social housing etc.
Listed building consent is often required for basic repairs and can even control the colour a building is painted. Certain materials are positively discouraged, for example, so called specialist damp proofing with non-breathable Ordinary Portland Cement. This can be damaging to period masonry and is frowned upon. Instead, conservation officers encourage a holistic approach to repairs. Planning consent is not usually required for such matters.
How to improve the prospect of consent
Although obtaining listed building consent for major changes can be tricky, clients have a greater chance of success if they liaise with local conservation officers from the start. By including them in initial ideas, and displaying an understanding of their role in the process, officers are more likely to be pragmatic and sympathetic.
Often, conservation officers prefer a proposal that is in contrast rather that a faux ‘chocolate box’ extension. They also consider seemingly out-of-keeping past changes an integral part of the building history. Clients cannot, therefore, assume removal of apparently poorly designed features will be granted.
If clients have a particularly tricky proposal, they should engage the services of a planning consultant.
Of course, certain alterations will always be out of the question. The biggest enemy of the conservation officer, and in fact, most professionals with an interest in heritage buildings, is plastic; especially uPVC windows.
Non-conformant alterations and retrospective consents
If there have been changes made to the property since it was listed, and there is no record of consent, the planners can at any time request the alteration is reversed, or a retrospective application for the change is made. Permission will not necessarily be forthcoming. There is no time limit, and an owner will be responsible for changes made by previous owners.
A typical example is if a fireplace has been taken out. Replacing it can be extremely expensive. It really is a case of ‘buyer beware’. Engaging a pre-purchase surveyor with a full understanding of the risk and an eye for potentially non-conformant past changes is essential.
The conflict between conservation and building regulations
Inevitably, most listed buildings fall well below the constructional and thermal standards of a modern building. Upgrading it to meet modern standards, especially in terms of heat loss and green energy can be tricky if not impossible. For example, it is highly unlikely consent would be granted for roof-mounted solar panels, and often seemingly sensible proposals such installing sealed unit glass in original window frames tend to be rejected.
Other steps can be taken; secondary glazing is acceptable, and using traditional breathable materials such as sheep wool loft insulation, lime-based mortars and renders that facilitate evaporation is very effective at improving the thermal qualities of a building.
Ultimately, whether clients are buying a listed building because they love it or purely as an investment or development opportunity, they should expect to be challenged if they want to make changes or repairs.
Robert Desbruslais, Director, Desbruslais Chartered Surveyors. www.desbruslais.co.uk