When it comes to making changes to listed buildings, planners and conservation authorities are often unhelpful, ill-informed, and obstructive to the point of malice

It has always frustrated me that development control in this country is a lousy business to have to participate in. By this, I mean that going through planning, conservation approval and the listed building consent process makes most of us feel like a poor Romanian applying for a US visa in the days of Ceausescu … it’s all the form filling, sucking of teeth, interrogation, inordinate waiting and then, more often than not, rejection. And even if you’re lucky enough to get the nod, you’ll still have to fulfil more conditions than you can shake a stick at.

I know these bureaucratic rituals from my professional dealings with planning and conservation authorities, and through organising changes to my own house. It is a common misconception in the industry that listed buildings cannot be altered or demolished. Listing simply means that a statutory authority must approve all such proposals before work commences. Indeed, some element of alteration to listed buildings is inevitable because of ordinary conservation and repair work, and in some cases even the demolition of some part may be required in order to ensure the survival of the building as a whole. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Conservation is a broad church.

The fear of loss of life and property after the Great Fire of London in 1666 brought about the first formal controls. This lead to the London Building Acts of 1667 and 1774. Then we had laws on listed buildings (1932), conservation areas (1967), World Heritage sites (1984) and now locally listed buildings. We’ve reached a point where we’re expected to consider not just these designations, but also the setting of listed buildings and conservation areas as well! Heaven help us. Where do we draw a line?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t protect our heritage; the greatest threat to it probably does come from ill-considered interventions by their owners and poor decisions made by planning and conservation folk.

Some of the headaches stem from the lack of skills and resources in local authority conservation departments, a lack of integration and poor communication between conservation and other local authority departments and a disproportionate responsiveness to community (and Nimby) concerns that are really nothing to do with heritage at all. I know of one case where an “early” mdf kitchen was argued to be a heritage issue in a pub in Twickenham. The crass nonsense that is sometimes uttered is alarming.

Many clients and practitioners suffer at the hands of overzealous conservation officers who, if you are lucky, have good historic knowledge, but then show poor judgment about new architecture and form an unholy pact with the forces of Nimbyism. In my experience, many council officers know little about building materials, or the technology and craft of construction and what constitutes good design. I appreciate that subjective matters require a trained eye, but such attributes together with a sense of proportion, juxtapositional tolerance, and a feel for complementation that escapes many officers. This state of affairs is not universal, but it is sufficiently common to be a general problem, and needs addressing as such.

This problem will only get worse if Planning Policy Statement 15 (PPS15), is left unchanged. It was first published in 1994 and is now out of date. An updated statement is needed to ensure that the historic environment continues to be given due weight in planning.

A new PPS is also an opportunity to reflect best practice and approaches to managing change. Furthermore, in July 2009 it looked as though things were deteriorating further as the government was moving towards a policy even less clearly framed, such as “protection of non-listed buildings with architectural merit” (locally listed buildings). These are quaintly referred to as “heritage assets”. This would have allowed councils to take a broad interpretation of a such asset in order to refuse applications.

However, I think there may be light at the end of the tunnel. John Healey, the planning minister, has now promised to “redraft” PPS 15 with new rules on historic buildings. Healey says there is no question of downgrading the protection of historic buildings: “We will redraft it to make clear that protection will not be reduced.” However the minister has not yet committed to

re-consulting stakeholders on the redrafted PPS, and there’s fat chance of that happening before the election, I would say. A final version of the guidance is set to emerge before easter 2010, (the word on the street is 10 March). Let us hope it brings a change in the right direction. In the meantime, you folk in the employ of local authorities: wake up! You serve us, and are not born simply to stifle enterprise under the label of protecting the vernacular. I say, get the balance right, guys!