This article was first published in The Brief, and the full article can be found online here. 

Britain’s rich collection of listed buildings is at risk of neglect, with debate raging over whether legislation is required to rescue the country’s architectural heritage.

Recent publication of the Heritage Counts annual report has triggered concerns about the adequacy of local authority staff to police our heritage system. 

Statistics tell the story: since 2012-13, the number of listed building consent applications has consistently grown, but against a backdrop of decreases in specialist local authority staff. Since 2006, the number of archaeological specialists has fallen by 23 per cent, while the number of conservation specialists has tumbled by 35 per cent.

The Institute of Historic Building Conservation says that although it has seen unprecedented levels of posts advertised, many councils have insufficient specialist conservation provision. In some cases, there is no provision.

Listed building law is both draconian and comprehensive. Any works that affect the historical or architectural interest of a listed building require consent, and this includes works to both the inside and outside of a building. Carrying out works without consent or in breach of any conditions attached to consent is a criminal offence. It is difficult to imagine what additional laws might be required.

The Heritage Counts survey also found that 93 per cent of listed building owners say that their homes are very important to the character of the local area, with 88 per cent recognising the importance of the listed building consent process for protecting the special character of their property. This suggests that we are not a nation of heritage law breakers.

So what can be done to improve the system?

There has never been enough local authority staff to monitor the system. Many works that are carried out without consent involve the interiors and are almost impossible to detect. This suggests that it is education that matters. Whenever a listed building is sold, the new owner could be provided with a booklet outlining the extent of the obligations.

Generally, planning applications incur a fee payable to the council. Where an application involves listed building issues, it is likely to be more complicated and require specialist input. However, no additional fee is paid for applications that include listed buildings. Making them subject to a fee could cover the employment of specialist staff to work in the system.

Reforms in 2014 were brought in to help to speed the issuing of routine or repeat listed building consents. Last May, a groundbreaking agreement to protect the University of Sussex’s listed buildings was signed by Brighton & Hove city council, Historic England and the university. The resulting listed building heritage partnership agreement is only the second of its kind in the country.

While it is hardly encouraging to hear that heritage officer numbers are dwindling, it is clear that the issue of the need for heritage protection is recognised and accepted and there may be ways of funding more staff, educating the public and streamlining the system to make it more efficient.