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.


You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.

Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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