It is with some relief to us, and many clients with historic cottages and houses, that at long last the UK Government seems to be waking up to the problems the current planning system is causing owners of listed buildings.
The January 2024 release of their planning guidance, snappily titled Adapting historic homes for energy efficiency: a review of the barriers, essentially recognises that if the Government is going to have a cats chance in hell of reaching its net zero goal by 2050, it must make it easier for owners of historic houses to make them more energy efficient (an incentive to do so would be nice too, but one can dare to dream).
There are 460,000 listed buildings across the UK, and I am fortunate to live in one of them; a small Grade II* listed farmhouse built by monks in 1175 as part of the Glastonbury Abbey estate in South Somerset.
There are holes everywhere, it provides shelter to thousands of birds, spiders, butterflies, moths and the occasional mouse, and we love it. The glass on the windows is old. Very old. It’s about 2mm thin, incredibly fragile and hopeless at retaining heat.
In the 17 years we have been there, I have approached the planners twice, both times attempting to improve energy efficiency in my historic building and asking about the possibilities of replacing the existing glass with historically sensitive double glazing. Each request was met sniffily by the council, so much so that I didn’t even bother applying for listed building consent.
I turned the Aga up instead, and watched my money disappear through the huge gap in the wonky sash window. Conversely, a friend in Wiltshire approached her council with a similar request and was almost given clearance on the spot.
The Government’s paper recognises this inconsistency across councils, and with the publication of this document has shown its intention to make it easier for home owners to retrofit historic buildings to improve their energy efficiency by making obtaining permission easier to achieve.
Concerningly many local planning authorities have no conservation officer at all, with many sharing a post with neighbouring councils or worse still, buying in heritage advice from expensive consultants.
So, other suggestions in the paper, such as training those in the planning departments to make decisions based on some level of knowledge and rational thought, not simply gut, are to be welcomed.
Policies aside, it boils down to one simple thing. The best way to protect listed and historic houses is to make them attractive buildings to live in. And that means helping owners bring them up to modern living standards. Hopefully this new direction in government thinking will go someway to helping towards this.