The RedBook Guide: 6 key tips if you buy or own a listed property in London

—25th September 2018

If you are looking at buying a listed house or flat in London—or own one already—and plan to make changes to it, you will want to read this RedBook Guide.

What difference does a Grade make?

Listed buildings are ranked according to their architectural and historic importance. Grade I is the highest rank, of course. Then comes Grade II* (known as ‘grade two star’). The lowest rank is Grade II.

There are about 900 buildings listed Grade I in London, 1,400 listed Grade II* and many thousands that are listed Grade II. The prime residential areas of central London—Belgravia, Holland Park and Knightsbridge, for example—have much the greatest concentration of listed houses.

Exterior of London property

In general, the higher the rank of your property, the harder it is to make changes to it. But major changes are sometimes made even to Grade I-listed buildings, and the governmental body in charge of the listing system, Historic England, itself says: ‘Listing is not a preservation order, preventing change. It does not freeze a building in time…’. And work to a property that reverses harmful changes that were made in the past, or better reveals the importance of the building in some way will be welcomed.

So take heart—and do take the best expert advice on how to approach your project.

Our Advisory Board at RedBook includes Dr Simon Thurley, who for 15 years was head of English Heritage and in charge of the entire listing system. He set up Historic England.

Also, two of RedBook’s directors own listed houses and have successfully made big alterations to them.

So we know first hand how to handle listed buildings, and are ideally placed to advise on launching your project and introducing the experts you will need such as specialist architects and planning consultants who suit your taste and ambitions.

Here are 6 essential tips to help you navigate through the listed property ‘minefield’:

Artistic view of a staircase

1. Understand why your home is listed

The purpose of the whole listing system is simply to protect the best of England’s most important buildings. So almost every building in London that dates from before 1840 is either listed or eligible for listing.

It is easy to find out if your property is listed, and exactly what is considered special about it, by searching the online National Heritage List kept by Historic England. It is fascinating to read the description of your own property’s listing:

historicengland.co.uk

Sometimes, what is important about a building is not immediately obvious. For example, the actual bricks and mortar of the building may be entirely ordinary, but the way the building was made makes it worthy of listing, or an association with a particular person or event, or merely the layout of the property.

TOP TIP: Surprisingly, it can be sometimes as easy—or hard—to get consent for changes to a Grade II* house as to one listed Grade II. Cuts to council budgets mean that the local officers charged with making decisions on listed buildings often have too much work on their plate, or occasionally are insufficiently experienced to engage in finely reasoned decisions about the architectural merits of a project. Yet they still have the power to give consent or refuse it.

By contrast, the specialists of Historic England who judge listed-buildings applications on the higher grade properties are frequently better trained, more experienced and therefore ready to be persuaded by considered argument from architects or planning consultants.

Do be aware that it can sometimes take time to negotiate alterations to a listed building, and you may want to get an early indication of the likely success of your proposals by asking your local planning authority for what is called ‘pre-application’ advice before you submit a formal application for consent.

The drawing room of a listed building

2. Take advice at the outset

You may hear how hard it is to alter a listed home. Indeed, it can be a challenging and slow process.

But by taking advice from the right experts such as architects with listed building experience, and specialist planning consultants, at the earliest opportunity—even when you are considering a purchase—you can avoid heartache. The experts know the pitfalls and the secrets of getting permission to make changes to listed buildings.

By consulting experts, you will also save time, money and the bitter frustration that comes of pursuing ideas that are doomed from the word “go”.

TOP TIP: One of the most powerful tools you can use to make your case for the changes you want is called a written ‘heritage statement’. This is written by an expert architectural historian who you employ to research and describe how the house has changed since it was built. This will set out what is important about the house, where the opportunities are to enhance it, or explain why your proposals will not be harmful. The statement is highly factual and should support your argument that the changes you wish to make are insignificant or, on balance, benefit the property.

RedBook works with a wide range of heritage consultants who write heritage statements and have a record of achieving impressive consents.

A row of terraced listed buildings in london

3. What can you do to your listed home?

The basic rule is simple. You do can anything to a listed building if you have the right permission. Getting permission, known as ‘listed building consent’, is the key.

Listed building consent is required by law for any change to the building that affects its architectural or historic interest.

You should know that the final arbiter is the planning authority, so even if you think the work is insignificant, they may take a different view.

But you want to get this right because the penalties for breaking the rules are severe.

So who decides whether to give you consent?

A specialist official known as a ‘conservation officer’, employed by your local council, will decide whether your proposed changes should be given consent. If your home is especially important historically or architecturally, and is listed Grade II* or Grade I, then the government’s heritage watchdog Historic England may become involved too.

The basic test is whether the proposals at least maintain that special and architectural interest of the house. If your plans pass this test, you should be given listed building consent.

TOP TIP: Gaining listed-building consent is often a matter of negotiating carefully with the conservation officer. So it is important to build a case for making changes that persuades the conservation officer that the advantages to the building of the change outweigh the disadvantages. For instance, if you want to knock through an old wall—something that the conservation officer will not like as it harms the original fabric of the house—you will want to show at the same time how you are restoring missing original features such as decorative plasterwork or ironwork, and are removing horrible modern plaster partitions or suspended ceilings.

A short video explaining what kind of changes to a property need listed-building consent is found on this video from Historic England:

If you want to make changes to the property that would require planning permission from the local council even if the property were not listed, such as adding a whole new storey to the property, you will need to get planning consent as well as listed-building consent. These two consents are normally applied for at the same time.

It usually takes councils in London around three months to process applications for listed building consent, and planning consent.

TOP TIP: The attitude of conservation officers to changes proposed on listed buildings varies from local council to local council in London. Some are more flexible than others. So choose architects and planning consultants who have experience of your particular council.

Front view of terraced listed buildings in London

4. If your home is listed, it is listed from top to bottom

Even though the listing description of your property does not mention the particular bit you want to change you will still need listed building consent to make the change , unfortunately. (In vary rare cases, the façade of a listed building is the only part to which the protection applies.)

For example, here is a description of a Grade II-listed house in Westminster taken from the National Heritage List kept by Historic England:

‘Early to mid 18th century. Stock brick. 3 storeys and basement, 3 windows wide. Flush framed sash windows. Roof not visible. Interior not seen. Wrought iron gate and garden railings.’

This same house was extended 20 years ago by the previous owner in a completely different style to the original house. The new part is built of modern concrete blocks and is poorly designed.

Common sense suggests that the listing does not apply to the new part. But the opposite is true: the listing applies to the entire house, including the most modern parts. So listed building consent would be required to change the new part. (The listing also covers anything attached to the building and its immediate surroundings that pre-dates 1947.)

But when considering an application for listed building consent, conservation officers take into account the relative significance of the bit of the house that you want to change. So replacing a cheap and nasty modern window is not going to meet the same resistance from the conservation officer as removing a beautiful Georgian fanlight, for instance. But conservation officers do sometimes insist that parts of a property which have been added since it was built—even modern parts—help to ‘tell the story’ of the property’s architectural evolution and are therefore sacrosanct.

5. Factor in extra cost and time

Ornate ceiling detail

It can be more expensive to make changes to a listed building than to a property that is not listed. So when you may make a ballpark budget for your project, allow for some additional costs that may crop up.

• The older the building, the more surprises come to light once plaster is stripped off walls and foundations investigated. The builders of hundreds of years were sometimes terrible cowboys. And time takes its toll on any property.

• When listed building consent is given, it is common for the consent to specify that traditional materials and techniques are used, and to require that samples be approved by the local conservation officer before being used. So the building materials needed to repair or enlarge a historic house—such stone facing or handmade brick on the outside of a house or ‘lath and plaster’ on the interior—are likely to be relatively costly.

• Skilled builders and craftsmen are often employed on projects like this. They are more expensive than run-of-the-mill builders.

• Architects’ fees for working on listed buildings can be higher than when they alter a an unlisted house. This is because architects often need to devote extra time to a listed-building project in order to handle discussions with conservation officers, and knitting together new brick and plaster with very old materials takes careful design.

6. Tempted to make a change without asking permission? Then watch out.

You won’t be alone if you are tempted to make changes to a listed building without the right permission. But bear this in mind:

• Making or instructing builders to make unauthorized work to a listed building is a criminal offence and such works never become lawful.

• Your property will be hard or impossible to sell if you have made a change without listed building consent that is discovered during the sale process.

• You may be surprised how nosy and observant neighbours in London can be. Even changes to the interiors of houses that owners think will be hidden from general view are sometimes spotted by sharp-eyed and perhaps envious observers through windows or open front doors, then reported to the local council. Materials seen in a skip outside a house often give the game away, too.

• You could even be forced to pay to reinstate any changes you have made to the property, and cover the legal costs of the local council, if you make changes to a listed building without consent.

In the most extreme case, courts can imprison you for six months.

• You are still criminally liable after you sell the house for any unauthorized changes made. This is serious stuff.

Our firm advice is that you speak to a specialist architect or planning consultant before making any changes to your listed home.

RedBook has advised on dozens of listed building projects in London, from Grade I through to Grade II, and introduced clients to the best professional team to get on board for each project at the outset.

Summary

Listed buildings are often the finest homes in London. They are listed because of the special quality of their architecture or history, and that very special quality is no doubt what you love about the one you own or want to buy.

In RedBook’s experience, the owners of listed buildings find the extra effort or cost of making changes worth the investment: the pleasure of improving and giving new life to a beautiful old listed house is intense and enduring. And improving an old building sensitively, for example by adapting it for 21st-century living, often adds greatly to its value.

RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps client and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.

For further information, please contact us on 0207 060 6222. Or email: enquiries@redbookagency.com