Planner in the Works
Conservation officers shouldn’t behave like architectural traffic wardens
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
January 29, 2005
By Clive Aslet
Question: which is worse for the British countryside: a development of executive homes, or a wing built on to a listed country house, replacing (in virtual facsimile) one that has been torn down by a previous owner?
Answer: the sad truth is that councils will often spend more time per case scrutinising the attempts that quite obviously sympathetic owners make to improve their listed homes - work that may well be completely invisible to the public at large - than they do seeking to improve the hideous rash of new housing currently disfiguring the nation.
Unlike the commercial developer, private owners cannot oil the wheels of the system by providing councils with what is effectively a bung, in the form of "planning gain" (some local improvement that a council cannot afford out of its own budget). They are at the mercy of sometimes chippy conservation officers and English Heritage officials, whose ambition is to act as architectural traffic wardens - inflexibly applying the letter of the law regardless of expense and convenience. "What's the difference between a conservation officer and a terrorist? " runs a slightly risque joke in architectural circles. "You can negotiate with a terrorist."
Delay, expense, the frustration of being embroiled in an often unhelpful, nit-picking bureaucracy, the rage that results from discovering personal aesthetic judgments can be vetoed by a petty functionary of the nanny state... this agony, in striving for consent to make even the most modest of alterations to a listed building, destroys the pleasure of living in it.
"If I'd known it would have been this difficult and taken this long," says one depressed owner after another, "I'd never have bought the place."
Inhabiting an old building should be one of life's joys. Furthermore, since listed buildings are part of the national patrimony, it is in the public interest that this should be so. A new owner will lavish money on repairing his home; along the way, he will make the sort of adaptations that every generation in the history of the house will have done to make it suitable for modern life.
The listing system was introduced to stop old buildings of quality being pulled down or wrecked. Heaven knows, no one has been more staunch in defence of that principle than my own magazine, Country Life. But, over the years, the perspective has changed. Most councils no longer employ qualified conservation officers - perhaps architects who are used to the small compromises that must be made if an old house is to serve as a living family home. Instead, they offer the sort of salary that attracts only a newly qualified graduate, if that. The new breed of conservation officer - and sometimes English Heritage official - appears, to the average homeowner, like a member of Chairman Mao's Red Guards, armed with the certainty of youth, and apparently indifferent to the domestic misery his decisions can inflict.
Meet Andreas Papadakis. He is the man who hoped to re-balance Dauntsey Park House, in Wiltshire, by replacing the wing that has gone missing. No one could love architecture more than Mr Papadakis, who has spent a lifetime publishing architectural books. He was prepared to put pounds 1 million into the project. Two years on, and still with no planning consent, he has gone off the idea.
He had hoped to work and entertain in the replacement wing; now, he does so in London. Similarly, his equestrian daughter, Alexandra, who was keen for a stable for five horses to be built on the estate's 60 acres, is unlikely to need it, should permission ever come through. Having had to sell three horses because she had nowhere to keep them, she has now become interested in other matters.
In the West Country, another owner with wide experience of buildings - like many people battling conservation officers, he is too fearful of the consequences to be named - is trying to restore an old farmhouse. He has found that his efforts have been blocked at every turn by a freelance conservation officer, employed by the local authority, who admits to having no architectural qualification.
"At one point, she wanted me to keep a chimney-stack built in the mid-20th century, although the fireplace had gone and it was now pressing down on one of the main beams of the house," he says. If left, the stack would eventually have caused serious structural damage - hardly what the listing of the house was meant to achieve.
Eventually, the chimney-stack went; but the owner has still not been allowed to make such relatively modest internal alterations as the enlargement of a door opening to create a large kitchen. "You really want to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen," he says ruefully. To the conservation officer, it could not matter less whether the owner can live successfully in his house, so long as an internal wall is preserved.
"I was ready to throw in the towel," sighs one owner of a Grade I-listed country house. "I said to my wife, 'Let's just sell and get somewhere without all this hassle.' It was two years before one brick could be laid on top of another."
Work is now under way, but that does not assuage his resentment at the time spent battling an English Heritage officer, who wanted an arcade to be built, not in stone like the rest of the house, but in steel and glass.
It is exactly the attitude Ivan Massow encountered when restoring his home in Frome, Somerset. "I wanted to build a new link in local stone, in the same style as the house - nothing grand," he says. "They thought it should be a Richard Rogerses-que structure, in glass." To Mr Massow, the Rogers style would, in this context, be a cliche of modernism; surely there were other ways of being modern. He got his way in the end, but at what cost?
In Bedford Park, west London, Charlotte and Gareth Thomas wanted to erect a balustrade around the roof terrace of a brutalist extension that had inexplicably been allowed through the planning process in the 1960s. Mindful that planners like to see owners leaving a modern "thumbprint", they proposed a jagged-edged, steel-and-glass barrier, deliberately not aping the Queen Anne Revival style of Bedford Park.
Did it get through? Not on your life. The Thomases were informed that all Bedford Park balconies are in the white-painted, picket-fence style - a reversal of the principle encountered by Ivan Massow.
On an estate in the West Country, Peter Prado, a land agent with Savills, supervised the replacement of three rotten window frames in a cottage. One of the frames had to be remade by hand because the position of a glazing bar was 3mm different from the original. He was lucky; at least he got to renew the window frames. It is common for owners to be told that they cannot do more than cut out rotten wood and scribe in a repair - even though the rotten frame may be no more than 50 years old. But where is the surprise in that? They are also required to preserve attic partitions, thereby preventing the creation of a sensible bedroom, simply because - like a million other buildings in the country - they contain Victorian horsehair plaster, which no member of the public will ever see.
No doubt there are rogue householders, prepared to do structural damage to the listed properties they own. They must be stopped. But what is striking about the examples I have quoted is that in every case the owners have nothing but love for their homes. They are intelligent, sensitive and hugely well-informed people.
And yet for a minimum of two years, the listed buildings process has made them and their families miserable. They hire experienced conservation architects, only to find their opinion rejected by a point-scoring, inexperienced English Heritage officer in his twenties.
Not surprisingly, Simon Thurley, the dynamic chief executive of English Heritage, does not see it like this. Most owners of listed buildings are happy that the quality of their homes is recognised, he says. But even he acknowledges a smidgen of a problem: "There are not enough conservation officers. They do not have the right training. They do not have the right sort of political support."
He agrees that council members, conservation officers and even his own officials should be encouraged to see the big picture. If a building has been listed because of the importance of its Rococo plasterwork, proposals to change the interior must be examined cautiously. If the importance of the place is that it generally looks good in its setting, what happens inside does not much matter.
There are, Mr Thurley admits, two philosophical camps occupied by conservation professionals: one thinks that repairs should be made to blend in, the other that they should be made to stand out. "There is no right or wrong. Intellectually, the argument goes back to the 19th century."
Surely, though, the person who should decide which of these approaches he prefers is the one who pays the bill, and who will live with the result, not the one who has been sent by the council?
Sadly, today's presumption is no longer that the owner can choose how to live in a listed house, providing he does no significant damage. Instead, a growing number of owners feel that they have suffered nationalisation by the back door; it is the conservation officials who increasingly dictate how these domestic buildings are used -and even the colours in which they are decorated - although these functionaries have not contributed one penny towards their purchase or upkeep.
Where's the sense in that?