Surveyor and conservation specialist Geoff Crawford provides an invaluable guide for anyone looking to bring a decaying historic building back from the brink…
Consider planning at the outset
The first priority is to identify which aspects of your build will require planning and what planning they will need.
Listed buildings will have the tightest restrictions. Listed buildings consent is required and you will not benefit from the usual permitted development rules, which allow some home owners to adapt their properties without planning permission. If you are unsure whether your property or proposed purchase is listed, check with Historic England (imagesofengland.org.uk). There are around 370,000 listed buildings in the UK, of which some 92% are at the basic Grade II level.
Even if your property is not listed, it may be in a conservation area. This is determined by the local authority and all properties within its boundary will have to comply with tighter rules than normal.
Finally, determine whether you need to get your neighbour’s consent under the 1996 Party Wall Act. This applies if you are carrying out work adjacent to a party wall, across a boundary line or within 3m or 6m (depending on foundations) of a neighbour’s building.
All these rules are in place to prevent destruction of valuable property or development which causes detrimental effect on the whole neighbourhood. Remember, they are not there to prevent development of any kind. Indeed, quite adventurous plans will be approved if they add to the overall quality of the area and do not raise justified neighbourly objections.
We had experience of just such an adventurous scheme when we designed a cutting-edge minimal frame glass extension for a Grade II listed manor house near Andover, parts date to mid-15th century. We secured the necessary permission because we demonstrated that it provided a high quality 21st century element to the manor. We added it to the private side of the house where it can only be viewed from the immediate garden and replaced an 1870s lean to extension, one of the least attractive additions to the house.
Consult and adhere to local planning policies
Get your project off to a good start by making sure it fits within the overall planning framework stipulated by the relevant local authority.
The policy is contained in either a County Structure Plan, District Local Plan or a Unitary Development Plan. Your local authority will be able to give access to these and any good architect will refer to them as a matter of course when planning your project.
If you are thinking of building a new property, the relevant plan will indicate where in the area you can expect a favourable hearing, what kinds of dwelling they are looking for and what design style is most likely to be wanted. This might help you decide where to buy a building plot if you are starting from scratch.
If refurbishing an existing property, it will stipulate whether additional volume can be created, what materials should be considered vernacular for that area and what restrictions there are on property sizes. Some councils supplement their Local Plans with design statements – Winchester, for example, has encouraged each of its village parish councils to adopt a design statement of its own. These give guidance down to a very local level and can be of great assistance to residents considering their own development projects.
Don’t treat planners as the enemy
Once you and your architects understand the overall context, it is worth meeting the planning officials for a ‘pre-application advice’ session. Some councils charge for this but it could be a very cost-effective investment, particularly if you are planning a large-scale project or one which proposes an unusual design.
This meeting will enable you to gain an insight into the barriers you will need to overcome to get your permission. What are the real priorities? Planning officers will know where the council’s ‘red lines’ lie and what elements you might be able to adjust to gain permission more easily.
We all like to see our expertise recognised, so treat the planning officers as another professional who can help get your project built rather than as an adversary you need to outwit. Most of them have studied architecture or planning themselves, so have the same skillsets as your own advisers.
Remember, it is far safer for the planners to say ‘No’ quickly than ‘Yes’ or even ‘Maybe’ in a considered way, so try to eliminate any issues before you apply for permission.
The same applies to your neighbours
The local authority will consult the parish council, your neighbours and recognised local conservation and heritage bodies. They will also contact Historic England, English Nature and their own woodland experts if appropriate. You should do the same, ideally before the council sends its letter out.
Put yourself in the neighbours’ shoes and try to accommodate their concerns. Often, what they see as a major objection may be of little importance in your eyes and the aspect you are most worried about might not actually concern them.
Above all, be flexible and reasonable. You cannot afford to dig your heels in when you have a controversial project. Giving up something you really like might be part of the deal if you are to get anything through. So don’t insist on having everything; work with your architect to ensure that your proposals still deliver the practical space you need if objections arise. We all have a vision of what we want in an ideal world. However, this might not be appropriate for the site or the historic structure.
If you run into serious objections, be prepared to withdraw the application and revise it – this is generally better than getting rejected. Once the precedent of a ‘No’ has been set, it can make it more difficult to get approval in future.
Never forget that the local authority and neighbours can only object on genuine planning grounds – things like visual impact, over-development or the effect on the neighbourhood through noise and disturbance after the work is complete. These may be very restrictive in a conservation area or when working on a listed building.
Scale is often one of the big hurdles, particularly with neighbours if the new construction will overlook their land or is very close to the boundary. We took a large extension to a 1930s house at Buckler’s Hard through design and planning. It was a significant enhancement as it nearly doubled the ground floor area of the property and had a double height reception room. The key we found was to make extensive use of the original property’s existing Arts and Crafts style, timber frame structure with exposed beams to blend the new and the old together harmoniously. This was particularly important as its location in the New Forest Country Park and visibility from the Beaulieu River added further sensitivities for the planners.
The major emphasis on preservation of listed buildings or within a conservation area means not harming the interest in the building rather than keeping it utterly unchanged. This obligation applies to all listed buildings and is found in sections 16 and 66 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. Sympathetic and value-adding development is allowed. Indeed, one could go further and say it is encouraged. In a conservation area, there is an explicit call for “the desirability of new development making a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness.” No council is thanked for letting a historic area decay because they are unwilling to let good development go ahead.
So, work with your architect, engage local decision makers and influencers positively, be bold in your vision but flexible in your execution so you get the result you want.
Image: Witcher Crawford project