I have never had much confidence in heritage legislation since I discovered that I would need to seek permission to have a row of leylandii trees in my garden felled. This, not long after the Highways Agency’s bulldozers had torn their way through Twyford Down, and half of Smithfield Market was condemned for redevelopment. No matter how ghastly or inappropriate, every tree in my garden is officially protected because I live in a conservation area. I can’t prune, fell or lop without informing my local tree officer. Nor can I remove the 1970s garden wall or change my 1980s plastic window frames without permission. Just about the only thing I can do is demolish, save for one brick, the 18th-century cottage in which they are fitted: as the Shimizu Corporation found to its benefit a few years ago in Victoria Street in London, a loophole in the heritage laws allows you to partly demolish a building in a conservation area so long as you don’t quite go the whole hog.
Next week English Heritage announces the first in a series of reforms claimed to rationalise the heritage laws, much to the relief, one imagines, of the poor sod once prosecuted for removing the pebbledash from his stone cottage in the Cotswolds on the grounds that he had violated an important 1960s alteration. On Wednesday the government quango will launch a series of pilot projects demonstrating what it describes as a more ‘flexible’ approach to the management of old buildings. Rather than send the heritage police to snoop on your original features, then write to warn you that you touch your architraves at your peril, it promises that in future heritage officers will be more co-operative.
Take the Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol, resting place of many a fine sea captain and slave-trader, which was recently compulsorily purchased by Bristol City Council to prevent it falling into decay. Its near fate, says Peter Beacham, head of designations at English Heritage, picks it out as an example of how heritage legislation ought not to be organised. ‘At the moment, a dozen tombs at the cemetery are individually listed. Besides them, some of the buildings are listed separately and on top of that parts of the cemetery are listed as historic gardens. The new system will allow for a line to be drawn around the whole cemetery and for us to set up a long-term management agreement involving Bristol City Council.’ Similar pilot projects are planned for the University of East Anglia in Norwich, whose 1960s accommodation blocks by Sir Denys Lasdun were recently listed Grade II*, and Centrepoint, the little-loved 1964 office block at the bottom of London’s Tottenham Court Road which became a symbol for the excesses of speculative developers after spending its first 20 years largely empty.
‘What we’ve got at the moment is a ragbag of legislation which starts with the assumption that everybody is out to destroy everything,’ says Beacham. ‘It is a system which is good at saying no, but not so good at helping the owners of listed buildings manage their properties. It might be appropriate for small buildings, but not for groups of buildings like farms or the post-war shopping centres which are increasingly being listed these days.’
In the latter case, many might argue that the best system is the one which ensures the least obstruction to the bulldozers: Portsmouth’s much-hated and derelict Tricorn Centre was finally bulldozed last week after a bitter fight by 1960s faddists to save it. Yet anyone thinking the general public is intended to be the chief beneficiary of a more ‘flexible’ listing system is cruelly mistaken. Never mind the claim, which seems to be appended automatically to every white paper and government press release these days, that ‘everyone benefits’ from the proposals. There are horrors to be found deep in the discussion document issued by Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport last year, ‘Protecting Our Historic Environment: Making the System Work Better.’
It isn’t you and me wanting to put up a bookshelf in our cottages for whom the ‘flexibility’ is conceived; it is for the road-builders and airport-builders. Take paragraph 34: ‘Little brings the system into more disrepute than a contentious decision to list a property, followed weeks or months later by a decision to allow demolition taken by the minister responsible for listed building consent, who is legally able to weigh up all the factors.’ In future, the document goes on to suggest, listing should be undertaken ‘in the context of the future of the area in which the building stands’.
These cryptic phrases would appear to refer to cases such as that of St Mary’s in Harmondsworth, Middlesex, which boasts a 14th-century chancel and a 12th-century south arcade. Until a few years ago, the church had a relatively lowly listing — Grade II — but thanks to lobbying by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is now vested with the highest level of protection, Grade I. This is much to the inconvenience of the Department for Transport, because the church happens to lie in the path of Heathrow’s proposed third runway, and its Grade I listing will affect the length and outcome of any public inquiry. Another case which has angered the government in its plan to expand airport capacity in the south-east is that of St Laurence and All Saints, Eastwood, in Essex, which lies close to the end of the runway at Southend airport — an airport specifically earmarked for expansion in the government’s White Paper on expansion of air travel. The airport recently applied to have the building put on rollers and moved so the runway could be extended — an application so far put on hold thanks to lobbying from SPAB.
Under the existing rules, any member of the public can recommend a building to be listed. English Heritage is obliged to consider the application, and in doing so can consider only architectural issues. In future, it seems, the needs of aircraft will take precedence over gargoyles and foliated pillars. The government, states Protecting Our Historic Environment, feels ‘that there should be discretion within published policies to decide that a site or a building will not be listed because listing will not help to secure its future’. English Heritage, it adds, should be allowed to ‘consider at the outset whether the site or property is one which should be recorded rather than listed’. In other words, if the government decides it wants to build an airport on the site of your parish church, no one is going to stand up for it, but the men from English Heritage will come along and photograph it, take some brass rubbings, and maybe the local schoolchildren can all take a bit home.
An American woman flying into Heathrow was recently reported to have gazed down at Windsor and said, ‘What a silly place to have built a castle.’ Perhaps she wasn’t American after all. Maybe she was the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport herself.