Listed buildings may present challenges for owners but there is still scope for improving their commercial potential
The commercial potential of historic buildings is becoming increasingly appreciated. In the digital era, “authenticity” is a more and more valuable commodity. Visitors are more likely to visit somewhere that can be thought of as a “destination” and they are more likely to bring out their credit cards when they get there. Owners of “heritage” property may be sitting on an underused asset.
A common misunderstanding is that the authorities are out to prevent you from doing things to listed buildings. Far from it. The process of Listed Building Consent is all about changing and adapting listed buildings. The system is designed to facilitate and manage change. It is acknowledged that change in the historic environment is inevitable and, in fact, desirable. For buildings to survive they need to have viable uses. They need to move with the times. There are a few exceptions, notably Ancient Monuments, where the presumption is against change but for most listed building change is not something to be frightened of.
The starting point for any proposal to change a listed building is understanding the building and what is significant about it. There are many sources of on-line information and careful analysis of the building fabric can often reveal a great deal about its history. There are also archaeologists and historians specialising in much more in depth investigations who can be called upon. Armed with knowledge, decisions can be made that respect the building but that does not have to mean that some feature has to be kept irrespective of whether it impedes the proposed use of the building. Reversibility is also an important principle that can often be used to justify change. Not only is the gathering of knowledge helpful in the process of adapting the building to new uses but the “story” can ultimately become part of the commercial attraction. People are fascinated by the history of the places they visit.
Although alterations can often be justified, contrary to the often repeated assertion that a lowly category of Listed building gives carte blanche to do whatever you like to, say, the interior, there is no category of listed building for which you can say that a particular element is automatically insignificant and can therefore be thoughtlessly ripped out.
Another common misconception about listed buildings and Listed Building Consent is the role of Historic Environment Scotland (Historic Scotland as they were known until recently). HES is responsible for listing buildings. It does not manage the Listed Building Consent process. This is the responsibility of the Local Authority. HES is a “statutory consultee”. Most cases are decided by the Local Authority. Often now HES does not pass comment, particularly where the local authority has some in-house conservation expertise. Some may say “thank goodness for that” but in practice it is not always a good thing. Some local authority conservation officers are not well qualified or experienced and the expertise and high level view taken by HES inspectors is sadly missing from the process.
Having praised the expertise of Historic Environment Scotland it is only fair to point out that they provide a maddening lack of useful guidance in relation to listed building applications. It is, of course, difficult to give general guidance but a few pointers and statements of policy would not go amiss but, as matters stand, it is probably in the best interests of those who seek to adapt and change historic buildings to employ the services of an experienced guide. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland both have accreditation schemes for conservation professionals. On the other hand, Historic Environment Scotland is very good on other forms of guidance. It publishes informative booklets on a wide range of building conservation issues.
A couple of examples will serve to illustrate some of the points made above. In the case of a Category A listed castle consent was granted to remove one of a number of spiral staircases and to fit a lift. This does not set a precedent to do this anywhere but, in this instance, a carefully argued case was presented on the basis of a thorough historical analysis of the building. In another case the hand-painted wall panels were specifically referred to in the official list description of a country house. Consent was obtained to cover them over with lining paper prior to adopting a new decoration scheme. Often there are heated debates about whether, when an extension is required to a historic building, it should be designed in a distinctive contemporary manner or to “fit” with the existing building. We have obtained consent to do both although it has to be admitted that some Planners, clutching at “rule books” can be somewhat inflexible in their approach.
In short, our advice to the owners of underused heritage assets is this: be confident in putting them to work.
As seen in Scottish Land & Estates – Land Business (Issue 61, Winter 2016)