Friday 30 March 2012

VAT on Listed Building alterations

The Chancellor George Osbourne last week introduced the proposal to scrap the zero-rating of VAT on listed building (consent) alterations.

I often used to advise people (in my local authority days) to apply for listed building consent for complete re-roofing, one of the advantages being that they could apply to the VAT office for zero-rating for this work. I am sure I was not the only one to do this and I don't know how successful they were in getting the work zero-rated, because the change was suppoosed to be self evident, but it worked for a while. We know that the system is crazy. This has been going on for decades and I have been dealing with it since 1987. Let's forget the moaning and debate and get an e-petition up and running, a well written one, to prevent this happening and not to undermine all our lobbying over the last 30 years. The petition I signed yesterday was not very professional.

Demolition of Historic Building in Conservation Area (3)

A good outcome of the NPPF is that it does remove the ambiguity over this issue (see previous posts). It places the emphasis fully on the process of assessment of significance and this will then lead the decision makers and professionals to follow one or other assessment - whether it generates "substantial harm" or "less than substantial harm", based on its significance.

Another interesting question that will need to be explored in case law is what is "public benefit". This is not as straightforward as it might seem as it doesn't necessarily mean public use. Housing does not generate a public use but the consequences of development of a derelict or brownfield site, a gapsite or a building which has been torched or which has many environmental health problems could have significant public benefit of different degrees.

National Planning Policy Framework & pickling veg

I have never been one for waffle, although I could be fairly accused of information overload at times. The new NPPF released on Wednesday (27th March) seems to be a concise summary of all the issues that were considered in PPS5 and I quite like it. Only time will tell if it works well and removes most areas of ambiguity. The English Heritage companion guidance to PPS5 , the Practice Guide of 2010, is still valid and relevant, we are told by DCLG, but it will need amending quickly to ensure it carries weight in planning decisions. Dave Chetwyn on the Linkedin Group forum has also identified that it needs to respond to the Localism Act.

The main challenges it seems to me are now;

1. Defining in case law what is a heritage asset (an undesignated one). I have just seen an appeal notification (APP/A3010/A/11/2164722) where an inspector has just this week refused permission to demolish an unlisted building, which is not in a conservation area and not on the Local List but is recorded on the HER. His phrase was "its roadside position and general appearance....generate a sense of history and tradition". He therefore decided that combined with the fact that it was on the HER it was a heritage asset. This building is late 18th century in origin but is much altered.

2. Deciding who determines significance. This year's IHBC conference is about just this issue. If we rely on local groups to identify significant buildings without any process of vetting or established criteria, there is a danger that the whole process of identifying heritage assets could be undermined by over-zealous protection of everything old. In the same way, there are some conservation areas which are decidedly dodgy designations.  NPPF reinforces the need to consider designations of conservation areas carefully.

If local authorities rely on the "local view" and public opinion then significance could become exaggerated. Does it matter? Well, some would say what matters is what local's want. But then, we have created a national system of designating heritage assets over a hundred years with a thorough process of assessment. So that must be right too, mustn't it? 

I dread a backlash against over-zealous protection of any part of our heritage. We are in danger of all being labelled as people who "pickle in aspic" and I for one only want to be associated with pickling veg.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Demolition of Historic Building in Conservation Area (2)

Update on the building in London - at a meeting today I invited colleagues who are mainly conservation officers to comment on the demolition issue. It generated some good debate but no strong view in one direction. English Heritage colleagues were keen to stress the importance of the "cherished and valued local scene" as an important element of the conservation area and there clearly is a value to be placed on that.

Several people suggested that they had similar cases where they had restored buildings like my case in conservation areas, using grant money. Of course, where this is available it is a great tool but how many conservation areas have access to public subsidy in this form? Very few.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Pentelic marble, the Acropolis and Charles Reilly

I have just had a fascinating discussion with Paul Croft about a Charles Reilly building we are working on in Liverpool. He believes that Reilly may have been trying to re-create an interior with the character of Greek temples, by painting the plasterwork to imitate Pentelic marble. This would have been in 1910-13, just after N. Balanos carried out his restoration of the Erechtheion (1902-09), so is extremely plausible. I have not yet found any evidence of any visits that Reilly made to Athens, but he was well travelled in Europe. We will just have to see the outcome of architectural paint analysis and trial panels to see the original finishes. Interestingly, it may have been a very deliberate choice to contrast with St. Georges Hall, in all its polychromatic glory, which Reilly admired.

I had not come across the name Pentelic marble and my last visit to the Acropolis was in about 1982, when it was very hot and the monuments were inaccessible. I have now looked at the website and what a fascinating site that is, telling us in great detail about the recent restoration of the Acropolis. They say that they are matching the original Pentelic marble but the colour is so different in the photographs (the original marble a kind of pale creamy pink and the recently quarried stone a pale creamy white), that I wonder what has caused the change in colour?  How long will it take for the new stone to weather and to blend more uniformly with the old, or is it better that the old and new have a strong visual distinction, given the complex history of the various restoration schemes? Is the difference iron oxide staining from the iron used in the original construction or is it the effects of centuries of pollution? Or is the source a different seam from the quarry on Mount Pentelikos? The "ysma" site states that the effects of "microbial colonies, consisted of bacteria, algae, fungi and lichens" have altered the colour of the surface of the monuments, but no more.

Until I started looking at the links I wasn't aware that the Elgin Marbles had been cleaned a number of times, whilst in the British Museum, in an attempt to return their white colour, most recently in the 1930s. This was based on a misunderstanding that their original colour was white. Now that's another story!.............The British Museum accepts this was "a mistake" and deals with this in a paper on their website by Ian Jenkins.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Oddfellows Hall

This week I am surveying and recording an Oddfellows Hall in Lancashire. I know very little about the Oddfellows and this has been a fast learning curve. It's not a building type covered by the English Heritage listing selection guides, although Masonic lodges are covered. Although they were established for philanthropic reasons, to protect the interests of a community of individuals, they shared many characteristics with gentleman's clubs, albeit in a mainly working class environment, and in most cases women were excluded. They also seem to have been born out of roots in the trade guilds in parallel with the freemasons and many kept the regalia and ceremony and retained the names of "lodge" and "grand master", so it is easy to see why they might be treated with suspicion. But my observations are that they had a benign influence and were instrumental in protecting workers interests before the creation of the welfare state. The Oddfellows are listed as one of the UK Friendly Societies.

The interiors of these buildings are known to members of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (Manchester Unity) but not to the rest of us. Although I have now recorded the remains of this interior in Lancashire it will be interesting to see if I can unearth any examples of other interiors to see how they compare.

Demolition of Historic Building in Conservation Area

Recently visited a site in a London Conservation Area where there is local pressure to keep one of the older buildings, which was built as a pub in the nineteenth century. But how far should you go in keeping old buildings, just for their own sake?

It is an interesting case as the building has undergone a large number of alterations over its life. It has evolved to take in light industrial uses on the site and merged with the original building. Not only has it lost its original pitched roof structure and tiles, but also its chimneys and details such as cornice and pediment. It is now merely a shadow of its former self, and very plain, but I'm sure the local interest groups and some neighbours will not see it that way. The building has had its day, and served its purpose but it is now vacant, redundant, in very poor condition and without life or real architectural merit. Why not build something positive in its place, keeping the form and footprint, to preserve the character of the conservation area? The pragmatic approach is to weigh up its significance and then balance the loss with the public benefits. I am sure that there will be very different opinion, even within my own profession, about this sort of issue and each case has to be judged on its own merits but there is a new factor to be brought into the debate and that is the local view and values that local people place on these sorts of buildings - the opinion of local amenity or special interest groups is now given much greater credence under Planning Policy Statement 5. Views seem to have polarised over the years I have worked in this profession but I find there is always a common sense balance to be struck. Watch this space to see how this progresses.