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.”
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.