Can Britain’s councils still protect their listed buildings?

Marlborough House, Brighton. Image: The Voice of Hassocks/Wikimedia Commons.

If your neighbours slap a fresh coat of paint on the front of their house, you may or may not be pleased with the change in scenery. Should their home also happen to be of historic importance, the local authority will likely take a dim view, too. But beyond making disapproving noises, what practical steps can the authorities take once the apparently reckless deed is done?

The fate of Marlborough House, a Grade I-listed house in the centre of Brighton, is emblematic of the impasse between a recalcitrant owner and a disinterested local authority.

Nick Tyson, the honorary secretary at the Regency Town House, a conservation group, worked with the owner of the house, Tony Antoniades some years back to restore the front of the house in line with Robert Adams’s original designs.

“I was commissioned to study the history of Marlborough House in Brighton 15 years ago, when the owner lost confidence in the conservation architects then appointed to restore the property,” he tells me.

By 2005, the repairs concluded, his association with the property came to a close. Recently, though, he’s become increasingly concerned about the property, and has been in contact with the council.

“Most recently, I have made contact in regard to the inappropriate scaffolding of the front elevation and the associated risk of the façade being painted – a decorative schema that would be counter to the finish specified in the listed building consent that permitted re-rendering works.”

But despite these exchanges with the council, he says, “very little effort has been made to protect Marlborough House.”

Forgotten heritage

Last year Historic England processed 17,055 consultations from local planning authorities. And Listed Building Consent (LBC) applications are an increasing proportion of all such applications: in 2015-16 they accounted for 7.1 per cent of all planning permissions, up from just 5.7 per cent in 2007-08. 

Meanwhile the number of relevant council staff continues to drop. In 2016, there were 796 jobs in historic environment departments in local authorities across the country. That number has decreased by 5.8 per cent since 2015, and by 35 per cent since 2006.

The statutory remit of Historic England is to advise on applications which affect scheduled monuments, or Grade I and Grade II* listed structures. But it also advises on the lower-ranked Grade II listed structures in London, or on proposals to demolish any Grade II listed structures.

Yet its hands are tied if a private owner cannot or will not maintain the building: it is merely an advisory body. It exists to help the local authorities with an enforcement notice if the building is being damaged, and to advise private owners if they are not sure how to conserve their property.

As a spokeswoman for the organisation says: “Local authorities, as the decision maker in the planning process, make the final decision on planning and listed building consent applications. It is their role to weigh up the benefits against the harm caused by any proposal for change.”

Marlborough House is Brighton’s oldest Regency property, predating the famous Royal Pavilion by 20 years. Antoniades took it off the council’s hands in 1999 for around £500,000. 

This is where it gets technical. In 2002, listed building consent was granted for work to restore the front and roof along the lines of the original Robert Adam design. The application was accompanied by a specialist report which showed that the original finish to the building was a form of oil mastic stucco known as Liardet’s patent artificial stone, for which Adam and his brother held the exclusive rights to make and sell. This stucco had a fine-grained texture and was self-coloured in a pale colour that resembled Bath or Portland limestone in appearance.

Paint analysis showed that the windows were painted in a similar warm stone colour in an oil-based paint. The council says that Antoniades agreed to reinstate an artificial stone finish, which would be similar to the original Liardet’s artificial stone, and to leave it unpainted.

This finish remained – until the building was painted, without planning consent, earlier this year. According to a council spokesperson:

“No justification or rationale has been submitted for the principle of painting the artificial stone or for the choice of colour scheme. The recent painting of the frontage and the colour scheme used are not consistent with the original or early appearance of the building and are not supported by historic evidence.

“It is therefore considered that the works have caused clear harm to the architectural and historic interest of the grade I listed building.”

Now Nick Tyson has written to the council urging drastic action.

He said: “For a long time, conservationists have argued for the need to reform the law. This was meant to happen a while back but elections interrupted play. Today, the Marlborough House story represents a classic textbook case as to why the law needs changing. There was a time when Brighton and Hove City Council was fairly proactive in at least threatening owners with legal action. With the financial cuts of the last decade, they now never seem to consider this route.”

In fairness to Antoniades, it must be conceded that the house was in far from pristine shape when he bought it. It bore the signs of wear and tear after serving as the council’s education offices until 1974 and then as a tourist information centre before being closed in the mid-1990s. 

As Antoniades says: “We don’t think we have done anything wrong. The only way to protect it was to paint it. If you ask yourself ‘is this a better looking building than the one I bought from the council’ the answer has got to be yes.”

He has pledged to appeal the council’s decision. Meanwhile, the inexorable forces of sea mist and inclement weather wait for no-one.


Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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