Heritage: a joy or a headache?

PUBLISHED: 01:16 26 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:54 20 February 2013

Heritage: a joy or a headache?

Heritage: a joy or a headache?

Who will conserve the built heritage of Sussex, from farm buildings to stately homes, if planning expertise is lacking and the rules are opaque, asks Leo Hickish of the Country Land & Business Association

There used to be an unwritten contract between the owners of historic buildings and the public purse that our heritage would be looked after.

In the past two decades, however, the contract has become decidedly one-sided, as grants have almost disappeared and VAT has risen to 20 per cent.

This is not just a financial problem. It is now more difficult then ever to get planning permission and other consents for the changes owners need to make to ensure these buildings remain used and viable.

Unfortunately the current system assumes that any change to heritage needs expert scrutiny, yet local authorities which take the decisions are desperately short of the experts qualified to adjudicate. As local authorities shed more staff, the problem can only get worse.

Heritage pays its way
A widespread assumption in government is that maintenance of heritage is mostly funded by the state. The truth is that the state makes a huge profit from heritage because its expenditure on funding the maintenance of our built heritage is far outweighed by tax receipts in the form of VAT on maintenance works undertaken by owners.

Headline-grabbing projects such as the restoration of Old St Helens Ore, Hastings, a church of Norman or even Saxon origins, are the exception. Here lottery funding and a big effort from Sussex Heritage Trust will, in the best scenario, pay for most of the necessary works. But this is the exception. The wonderful barns, farm houses and other historic houses and buildings enhance this countys desirability immeasurably. Their owners are custodians of a built heritage from which we all benefit. It therefore seems only right that conservation of such buildings should be facilitated rather than obstructed.

Now is not the time to ask for extra public money. But there are fundamental changes which would make a great difference to the viability of owning historic buildings without requiring great Government expenditure or effort.

Focus on major offenders

Simple measures include heritage policy which allows sympathetic change. This should focus law enforcement on major offenders rather than minor technical breaches, which often have crippling financial implications for unsuspecting purchasers of restored listed buildings. Also, a reduced rate of VAT on residential property repairs would improve the affordability of essential restoration work.

There are examples across the country where seemingly pointless red tape has, if anything, hindered conservation. One listed farmhouse owner, for example, was caught between the planning authoritys insistence on single glazed windows, while building control regulations insisted on double glazing. In another instance, it took four years to secure consent to renovate and convert a timber barn to offices and two years to agree that floorboards could be taken up to install modern cabling. Then there was the listed outbuilding with a rusted corrugated iron roof which, the owner was told, must be repaired rather than replaced. The result is a building which still lets in water and is unusable.

Where the original use of historic buildings is no longer viable, and farm buildings are particularly relevant here, then their adaptation for private dwelling or business use is surely better for the Sussex countryside and economy than something derelict and crumbling? Of course restoration and adaptation should be sympathetic, but this needs to be overseen by planning staff who are experts in the field, of whom there are just too few.

Ignorance all too often leads to intransigence which leaves the owner in limbo, unable to take any course of action without offending some regulation. The result? The building suffers.

Unless the process is made less tortuous, we all stand to lose.

Leo Hickish is Chairman of the Sussex Branch of the Country Land & Business Association.

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