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Demolishing the arguments
Local Government Chronicle – 14 May 2004

Local listing cannot always prevent historic landmarks from being redeveloped, but it is still worthwhile. Mark Smulian reports

There is only one thing worse than seeing a favourite local pub turned into the Alcopop Arms or Wagon & Mice, or some other trendy makeover. And that is when it disappears altogether.

Most people's reaction would be to complain to the council that a local landmark has been knocked down, and the answer "terribly sorry, there's nothing we can do about it" would not impress much.

But that is the position in which councils find themselves, due to a bizarre legal anomaly. They can draw up lists of locally important buildings and require that planning permission is sought for external alteration or extension. But no planning permission is needed to demolish them, unless the building happens to be in a conservation area.

Local lists are used to designate buildings that are worthy of protection but are not of sufficient distinction to make the national list identified by English Heritage of buildings protected from demolition.

Locally listed buildings typically include Victorian pubs and commercial buildings, old cottages, shops, hospitals, even public toilets. While not nationally significant, they help to impart character to an area.

But, by an irony that does not amuse councils, a developer which did not need planning permission to demolish a locally listed building does need permission to build anything else in its place.

By then the developer has a vacant site and permission for redevelopment can be withheld only on normal planning grounds, not in revenge for the demolition. So, while planners can sometimes resist the 'redevelop' part of 'demolish and redevelop' applications, they cannot prevent demolition.

Harrow LBC has seen the demolition of local landmarks, fuelled by London's rocketing land values. It recently lost the 140-year-old Railway Hotel in Hatch End, despite protests from the council and residents, and a 1930s thatched cottage faces an uncertain future, as a developer wants to replace it with three houses. It fears a number of other buildings, including a station, are at risk.

Amy Burbidge, Harrow's principal conservation officer, says: "It is a concern that people do not need permission to demolish unless a building is in a conservation area or inhabited by tenants. Anyone could knock down a pub tomorrow.

"Historic buildings are not found only in conservation areas and local historic buildings need protection against demolition."

She says local listing signals that a building is important to the community, but confers no more protection than an inference that the council may oppose a 'demolish and rebuild' application.

"Essentially the problem is that these are valuable sites," says Ms Burbidge. "When builders want the land values they can only get them by knocking down what is there. We are seeing it particularly with pubs and commercial buildings."

Usually a developer will wait until it has permission for a new building before demolishing an old one. "But they may not and we do not carry much weight if our only sanction is controlling what goes on the site afterwards," Ms Burbidge says.

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport is reviewing heritage protection. Its consultation, which closed last autumn, raised the issue of whether local listing should confer protection from demolition and councils have made representations. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell is due to report on conclusions this month.

Probably more important is the ODPM's review of the general permitted development order. This is not a document to be taken lightly. The order allows certain types of work to go ahead without planning permission, and is so detailed that the review runs to 235 pages.

It was published last September and the ODPM expects issue proposals for legal changes in June, which will then have to go to consultation. "It is quite a hefty document," an ODPM spokesman noted.

The review, by planning consultants, does propose giving protection to locally listed buildings, but it is unclear whether this will be taken up by the ODPM or what degree of force any reform would carry.

It recommends: "To extend demolition control to apply to buildings identified on local lists and to make this subject to planning permission for redevelopment having being granted and a contract for construction being let."

Indeed, it calls for consideration of a proposal to impose a requirement for planning permission for any demolition, listed or not.

But the report concludes: "Extending demolition control only to locally listed buildings would target those buildings regarded as important, but relies on local lists being maintained by local authorities with limited resources, and a number of authorities do not have such lists and limited resources to prepare them."

Provided some legal issues could be resolved "this appears to be the most targeted way forward", and would give councils an incentive to compile lists. At present, only some 44% of councils have them.

The review acknowledged the strength of lobbying by conservation groups on the issue, including the Saint William of York Deposition, a campaign formed after a locally listed school was demolished in Islington in 2000.

Dudley MBC takes local listing very seriously. Its list, compiled after extensive consultation with the public and councillors, comprises more than 300 buildings.

Principal conservation officer Pete Boland welcomes the proposal in the ODPM review, but would want to see the detail of any change to judge its effectiveness.

He says: "The government does not view demolition as development and therefore a building can be demolished without a statutory requirement for consent, except possibly for the demolition method itself."

Dudley's policy is to refuse applications to 'demolish and rebuild' buildings on its list, but it faces the usual problem of being unable to prevent demolitions.

"We lose buildings all the time, and sometimes we are not even aware they have gone until someone reports it," says Mr Boland.

"Chapels are very vulnerable when they come to the end of their life as a place of worship, and we also lose commercial buildings."

In theory, the present law allows a council to issue a direction to prevent the demolition of a locally listed home. But this is a lengthy process and requires ODPM consent - and there is a danger of a developer seeking compensation if this is not forthcoming, so "it is more a theoretical than a practical option", he says.

Because Dudley went out of its way to involve the public in drawing up the list, "we come under pressure from the public because there is an understandable expectation that we will not allow demolition," says Mr Boland.

"The problem is the government accepts the special status of these buildings but not the means that would allow them to be retained," he adds.

Barnet LBC's conservation team leader Mike Brown has written and campaigned on the subject. The borough compiled its list in the 1980s and backed it with planning policies to protect buildings from demolition and unsightly alterations. This proved popular, but it too has suffered a rising number of demolitions as land values increase.

"The development world has seized on this anomaly in planning law," he says.

Barnet lost a notable pub, the Load of Hay. It also faced an example of a common problem, where a developer threatened to demolish a locally listed building unless permission was given for development on land behind it. The development proposed was of a nature not normally permitted.

Eddie Booth, chair of the Institute for Historic Building Conservation, which represents both council officers and consultants, says: "About half of councils have local lists and they apply them with varying degrees of enthusiasm and with mixed success. It is not a happy position because there is no national lead on it, there is no clear direction from government policy."

He describes local listing as only "a statement of intent that a council intends to secure a building's future without demolition". It is still worthwhile because it signals intentions and expectations, and in a few cases the Planning Inspectorate has given weight to local listing when deciding a planning appeal, Mr Booth notes.

He says: "The planning system consists of stick, carrot and bluff, and local listing is part of the bluff.

"If we were drawing up a policy shopping list demolition protection would be on it, we would like clarity as to what status these designations have."

The ODPM may propose this in June, but there will be a long process to bring it to fruition and councils will not know how effective any new power will be until they have substantial experience of its use.