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Top 5 Myths About Altering a Listed Building

There are millions of listed or otherwise protected buildings all over the UK, but few people know exactly what you can and can’t do when you want to make changes to one. Let’s take a look at our top five myths when it comes to getting planning permission for a listed building.


Grade II listed buildings are fair game

One of the biggest myths Heritage Consultants come across when it comes to listed building consent is that the listing system works like Top Trumps, and that Grade II or II* listed buildings are worth less than a Grade I listed building, meaning they can be altered more easily. In reality, everything under the listing system is equally protected, with the Grade that the building is given reflecting its quality or rarity rather than the level to which it can be changed. That means the windows in a Grade II listed farmer’s cottage are just as protected as the ones on Grade I listed Buckingham Palace, and neither can be removed or altered easily.

Listed buildings can’t be altered

Another frequent misconception when it comes to planning permission is that it’s hopeless to seek consent to alter a listed building, which can even make listed buildings harder to sell to nervous buyers. While it’s true that listed buildings often enjoy greater protections than buildings that aren’t listed, that doesn’t mean a complete ban on development, even in Grade I listed properties. Planning officials are open to balanced proposals in line with local policies and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which safeguard those elements of the building that are most significant, whilst also balancing the need to ensure a building’s long-term conservation and secure its optimum viable use. So, what exactly does that mean in practice?

Let’s say there is an internal doorway you would like to block. Sounds simple, right? Not always. Some conservation officers might have concerns that this would disrupt the legibility of the building’s interior. One way around this is to propose retaining a recessed area, which would allow the legibility of the historic opening and therefore, this element of its significance to be retained. This is just one example of how having a suitably qualified Heritage Consultant on your side can help achieve your design aims whilst also preserving the character, appearance, and significance of your heritage asset, helping it get through planning more easily.

Internal alterations don’t count

As a result of decades of misunderstandings passed down from person to person, the idea that a building’s listing applies to specific parts of a house won’t go away, but it’s just not true. While a listing description may pick out specific features that are particularly significant, the entire listed building is protected whether its features are mentioned or not, inside and out. The vast majority of hurried applications for retrospective planning permission submitted are from applicants who have been too hasty with the hammer, and knocked through a wall or two because their building’s listing only talks about the lovely front windows or the thatched roof. Of course, that doesn’t mean a balanced argument can’t be made to justify any works you want to carry out which will pass muster with the planners, but it’s always better to ask a Heritage Consultant before the event than it is to risk a hefty fine, or other planning enforcement, afterwards.

Does planning precedent exist?

Perhaps it’s too much Boston Legal on TV, but the idea that precedent works the same way in planning as it does in case law is becoming more and more prevalent. The old adage of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ holds more weight in the planning system, and just because your neighbour managed to get away with an unsympathetic conservatory back in the 90s, it doesn’t mean you can have one too. Aside from as a material consideration, precedent holds little weight in planning, especially as it relates to heritage assets. In some cases, your house is likely to be even more significant if nearby houses have incongruous alterations, because it makes your property the rare, unspoiled example in the area.

My building isn’t listed, so I can do whatever I want

While listed buildings are generally subject to a higher level of protection, that doesn’t mean it’s a free for all on non-listed buildings. Even buildings that aren’t listed may be considered non-designated heritage assets, which means that they are historically significant even if they aren’t officially protected, and harm to that significance can be grounds to refuse planning permission. It’s generally up to the local authority to decide whether this is true of your building or not, and you might not even know when you put in an application, so if you suspect there’s a chance that this may be the case, it’s often a good idea to get professional advice. Even newer houses can be subject to conditions if they’re located in conservation areas or areas of outstanding natural beauty, or even if they’re close to buildings that are considered designated or non-designated heritage assets.

If that myth-busting list raised an eyebrow, or if you’re just thinking about making alterations to your house and you’re not sure what you need to do, it’s a good idea to get professional help. Blue Willow Heritage has years of experience in providing design advice, planning advice and heritage assessments so people just like you know where they stand, so get in touch today to see how we can help.

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