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Home > Planning > Heritage > Guidance on owning historic buildings

Guidance on owning historic buildings

Listing marks and celebrates a building's special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.  Listed Buildings may not always be buildings and can be a range of historic or architecturally interested structures.

Owning a listed building involves caring for a part of the country’s heritage and with this right come certain responsibilities. The following describe a series of issues and concerns that owners of historic buildings sometimes come across, and suggestions for ways to resolve them. The Babergh Mid Suffolk District Council Heritage Team has therefore collated the following advice from members within the Team and from recognised experts in their field.


Is ‘Listed Building Consent’ required?

If your property is ‘listed’, then all parts of the building, inside and out, up and down, back and front, as well as anything fixed or attached to it, are covered by this protection, irrespective of whether or not particular items are mentioned in the official Historic England list description. In fact, the list description is not a definitive guide. Its only legal function is to identify the building beyond doubt.

Deciding what alterations affect character can be difficult, because it is a matter of fact and degree in each case, and often comes down to the exercise of professional judgement. Buildings can also be listed because of their relationship with the primary listed building on the site. This view is based on section 1(5) of the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act, 1990, which states that:

In this Act, “listed building” means a building which is for the time being included in a list compiled or approved by the Secretary of State under this section; and for the purposes of this Act:
 a. Any object or structure fixed to the building;
and b. Any object or structure within the curtilage of the building which, although not fixed to the building, forms part of the land and has done so since before July 1, 1948 shall be treated as part of the building.

Whether a building is ‘curtilage’ listed or not is something that requires not only a site visit by a member of the Heritage Team but justification from the applicant, which might involve information contained within deeds and historic maps or plans. Making any alteration to a listed building, (including any curtilage listed building) that affects its special architectural and historic character - as determined by the local planning authority (LPA) Heritage Team - must be authorised by the Council through the granting of LBC.

Carrying out such works without obtaining consent can constitute a criminal offence, and if such works have been carried out to a building without consent you inherit responsibility for putting things right, which might include reversing the works, or carrying out new work to the satisfaction of the council, at your own expense.

The unique nature of all listed buildings makes it difficult to answer general queries, because what might be quite reasonable in one building might be completely unacceptable in another, simply because the buildings have had very different origins and subsequent histories. Nevertheless, there are certain elements of work which tend not to require consent, though if the work is extensive it might still be considered by the Heritage Team to affect the character of a listed building – and therefore trigger the requirement for LBC.

  • Re-wiring, unless it involves structural alterations, rarely needs any consent. The same goes for new heating systems and new radiators, although if a new external flue or new boiler is required, that is very likely to need some sort of consent or permission.
  • Re-painting walls or decorating windows and external doors in the same colour as existing does not require LBC.
  • 'Like for like repair' on a very limited scale, and using matching materials and techniques, does not require consent. However, the extent of that repair should be discussed with the Heritage Team because for each property, and for each sort of repair, the volume of work that might be carried out without LBC varies.

 ‘Like for like’ is a phrase often used in connection with listed buildings, but it is often used loosely, and sometimes quite erroneously. In fact, the phrase ‘like-for-like’ does not actually appear anywhere in the relevant legislation, which is the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.

In section 7 it states that “no person shall carry out works for the alteration of a listed building in any manner that would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest, unless the works are authorised”. Authorisation, in this context, means by a grant of Listed Building Consent (LBC). ‘Character’, in this context, means anything and everything that makes the building what it is, including the materials it is made of and the way it is put together, as well as the details of its external appearance.


Making a Listed Building Consent application

At present, there is no fee for an LBC application. You can do the drawings yourself if you wish, but they must be accurate and to a recognised scale. If they are not the LPA will be unable to validate the application. The other document you must provide with an LBC application is a Design and Access Statement. The government says you must submit one of these with every LBC application. They don't need to be complicated, but you must supply information under all the headings adequately, or the LPA won't be able to validate your application.


Curtilage listed buildings

Buildings and structures within the curtilage of listed buildings may also be protected by listed building legislation, and are referred to as 'curtilage listed buildings/structures'. These can include walls, outbuildings, backhouses and dairies, for example. The criteria for determining whether an outbuilding or structure is curtilage listed is dependent upon 3 tests:

  1. Was the building or structure erected before 1948?
  2. Was the building or structure in the same ownership as the principle listed asset at the time of listing?
  3. Did the building or structure have an ancillary relationship with the principle listed asset at the time of listing?

Alterations or extensions to curtilage listed buildings or structures may also require LBC, subject to their curtilage relationship to the primary listed building, which needs to be established before any work begins. The Heritage Team should be contacted before an application is submitted, to help establish whether or not an outbuilding has the same listed status as the primary building. Planning permission may also be required. Linking a curtilage building to a host building will require LBC and planning permission.


Development within the curtilage of a listed building

The construction of new buildings, structures or enclosures within the curtilage of listed buildings will require planning permission, but not Listed Building Consent, unless the new structure is attached to the listed building.

The Heritage Team's support for this form of application will depend on the scale, massing, articulation and location of the proposal, and the exact details of materials and sections.


Internal alterations

Modernising kitchens and bathrooms

The requirement for Listed Building Consent will depends exactly on what you wish to do. ‘Modernising’ is a fairly vague term.

Replacing any post-war of later 20th Century units or appliances rarely requires any consent, whilst remodelling the internal structure, including altering the walls, floors or ceilings, or doors and windows, usually does.

The creation of a new bathroom will sometimes require LBC. Building Regulations approval will probably be required, and whilst these two consent regimes can sometimes contradict each other, LBC takes precedence. You will probably need to introduce services in to the room and take waste away, so you will need to create holes in the fabric to do this, while Building Control will expect you to introduce mechanical ventilation.

If the fabric to be removed or altered is historic, the Heritage Team might have serious objections to the proposals, which might mean we would not support an application for the work.

Removing ceilings to expose beams

Not all floors above ground were designed to be seen from the underside, and their exposure will always require the benefit of LBC. It must be noted that the Heritage Team would not support proposals to remove lath-and-plaster ceilings of any date simply to expose beams, irrespective of whether they were considered originally to have been exposed or not. However, removing a modern plasterboard ceiling may be more acceptable, depending on what lies above it and the potential impacts of doing so, on the character of the room.

Removing walls

The acceptability of this depends upon the age and meaning of the wall. If the wall in question is a 20th Century stud and plasterboard or blockwork partition, it will probably have little significance. But if it is more historic, and informs of the older layout of the building, its significance will be substantially greater. Nevertheless, creating doorways in old walls is sometimes possible, but entire removal is seldom supported by the Heritage Team. Any changes will require the benefit of LBC.

Uncovering or exposing an earlier fireplace

Why was the old fireplace covered up? Various elements in old houses get covered up because they are in a poor condition - which sometimes mean that once they are uncovered, there is pressure for more extensive work to make them look ‘better’ - and this might be quite damaging to the character and significance of the structure.

A second reason for previous changes to a fireplace was the introduction and use of coal instead of wood as a source of fuel. Coal burnt more efficiently and, because it was initially more expensive than wood, fireplaces reduced in volume.

Fashion was the third reason why inglenooks were covered over.

The acceptability of uncovering an old fireplace depends upon the current situation, and what you wish to do to it. The Heritage Team does not support the removal of later surrounds simply to expose fireplaces form a particular period or style simply for the sake of aesthetics. A robust justification must be submitted with any proposal to remove later fire surrounds. You may also require the advice of a structural engineer (which you would have to pay for), to ensure the work is structurally feasible.

Sole plate and timber-frame repairs, removal of cement render and re-rendering in lime

Cement render has been applied to many timber framed buildings in the years since WWII and whilst it was considered something of a panacea at the time, it is not. It does not breathe, and so if and when timbers get wet, they do not easily dry out, with the result that they rot.

Heritage Team advice would be to remove cement render one area at a time, because removing all the render on a frame may cause further problems. Also, it may only be the render which is holding the house up, so taking too much off at once may cause structural problems. You can apply to remove the entire lot, which is the ideal thing to aim for, but once you have obtained consent, you should aim to complete it one piece at a time.

LBCS have a time limit of three years in which to implement them, but once you have started the work lawfully (i.e. you have discharged any conditions that require you to do something before you start), you can take as long as you wish to finish it.

The Heritage Team expects new render to be lime-based and to contain hair and we ask for the exact details of the lime mix to be used, including the volume of hair and the number of coats. The Heritage Team also expects the new render to be supported on wooden laths - either cleft or sawn oak or chestnut, or sometimes, sawn softwood. We would not normally however support the use of modern membranes in the new wall make-up - not even breathable ones, and we would expect to see any original infill (including wattle-and daub or early brick nogging) retained, in situ. However, if there are any voids discovered between the studs, they could be filled with a breathable, hygroscopic insulation, such as sheep's wool or mineralised hemp.

As far as repairing the timber frame is concerned, the Heritage Team would expect to see as much of the existing timber retained as possible. We accept that the full extent of repairs cannot be assessed until the render is removed, but as long as your LBC application includes ‘works to the timber frame’ we would impose a condition on the consent requiring the extent and character of repairs to be agreed on site and in writing. This would include information about the timbers to be replaced, the methods of repair, the forms of joint and the species of replacement timber. This information is most suitably provided on an annotated frame survey or other detailed drawing.

New ground floor and/or underfloor heating

Removing 20th Century concrete ground floors is usually acceptable, subject to the approval of LBC, because they do not breathe, which can cause long term detriment to other parts of the historic fabric. In replacing a concrete floor you might consider employing a more breathable replacement, for instance ‘limecrete’, or perhaps rammed chalk.

Underfloor heating works well with limecrete and with some renewable energy systems, such as ground-source heat pumps. LBC would be required to install such a system.

The removal of timber floors will require a robust justification, and will only be supported if the floor is evidently post-war and / or severely rotten. In the vast majority of cases, careful patch repair is all that is required. The Heritage Team would not support wholesale replacement of an historic floor simply for the sake of aesthetics.

Insect infestation

Treatments often proposed to eradicate insects actually penetrate very little into hardwoods, especially oak, but because the beetle larvae mostly live deep within they are often not affected. Meanwhile, it is pointless spreading or spraying insecticide anywhere for the adults to eat - adults of Xestobium rufovillosum (Death Watch Beetle) and Anobium punctatum (Common furniture beetle, colloquially known as “woodworm”) do not feed at all.

However, what the liberal spraying of insecticide often does kill is the resident spider population – and spiders are major predators of adult beetles of both these species.

Some contractors suggest drilling lots of holes in timbers in an effort to get the insecticide closer to the larvae, but this can be very damaging and unsightly, and not necessarily any more effective. 

The best way to monitor the population of Death Watch Beetle is probably with a UV trap. These instruments emit a bluish glow to attract insects of all kinds, and are commonly found in food shops. They kill the adults so you can count the bodies – As time passes, are you finding more or fewer?

However, the most effective treatment is to find out why the beetles are there in the first place. They are only really attracted to timber that is already damp and/or affected by fungal attack - so if you cure the damp problem, the fungal and insect attack will also cease.

This leads inexorably to the next issue... 

How do you cure damp?

What we would never suggest is that you get a ‘free survey’ by a damp treatment company – because sadly, there’s no such thing as a free survey. Damp treatment companies will suggest, inevitably, that what you require is whatever they sell, but whether that is actually true or not is another matter. 

This is a contentious issue. There is a substantial body of evidence that suggests that most rising damp is not rising, and some recognised experts even consider that it does not exist.

The Heritage Team is aware that ‘surveyors’ with damp meters try to sell injected damp proof courses to the unwary, so the watchwords here should be ‘scepticism’ and ‘caution’. Before employing a damp treatment company, and paying for a survey, it is strongly suggested that you read this article, written by a recognised conservation specialist. 


External alterations

New or replacement windows

If the window is historic or significant, the presumption is in favour of its retention and repair. However, if it is beyond practical repair (rather than beyond economic repair) then it must be replicated exactly, with all details, including joinery, mouldings and glazing. If it has “historic” glass then that must be retained and reused in the replica window, because that is an important element of its character and significance.

If the window is not in itself historic or significant, for example it was constructed in the 1960s, but it is located within an historic part of the building, then its replacement can be considered. The replacement needs to show an improvement in design and joinery on the inappropriate modern window, but in some cases double glazing might be possible. In these circumstances the slim double-glazed units (typically 12mm – 14mm) can be used.

Historic England (previously known as English Heritage) is however sceptical of these units, recommending instead the use of secondary glazing, which of course is the principal alternative.

If the window is in a modern part of the building then it can be replaced by a window of an appropriate design and it can be double-glazed with a slim-sectioned unit. The overall effect on the elevation in which the window appears will be considered, but the modern character of this part of the building will be taken into account. 

Storm-fitted sashes, applied or cosmetic glazing bars, large drip-moulded beads and other prominent features are not acceptable on windows on any part of a listed building.

Replacement windows always requires Listed Building Consent.


Paradoxically, small historic buildings are often the most difficult to extend acceptably: this is probably because the ‘original building’ to ‘extension’ ratio is very unfavourable, and even a relatively small addition can overwhelm a small building. Larger buildings can sometimes absorb a modest extension more easily without detrimentally affecting character, but if a building’s character is that of a small cottage, then it doesn’t take much to change this radically.

Any extension to the listed building itself will require LBC and may also need planning permission.

Changing external paint colour

Technically, this could affect character and thus may require LBC. In practice, the Babergh Mid Suffolk Heritage Team's approach is that, provided colours are agreed in advance, we would not normally request an LBC application, subject to the material finish remaining the same. A wide range of colours are acceptable, though very bright colours, or deep purples, reds and blues are not supportable.

‘Dangerous’ chimneys

LBC is required for the removal and reconstruction of a chimney stack, whether in its entirety or simply above the roof. The application would need to demonstrate that the chimney is actually dangerous, that a range of options had been considered, and that demolition and reconstruction was the least harmful option for the building’s special interest. Clearly, if the chimney was removed in haste it would be difficult to prove any of this in a subsequent application. If you are concerned in respect of its safety you should contact the Council and request an urgent visit from our Building Control department.

Solar panels

Solar panels, by their very nature, tend to be visually quite prominent, and it is often difficult to find a location on an historic building where they would be acceptable. It is sometimes possible, however, to install them on outbuildings, or free-standing in gardens or farm land, without causing harm to character and setting.

Nevertheless, each application is treated individually and on its merits. This is because all listed buildings are, almost by definition, unique, and all have different capacities to accept change without affecting them unduly.


Additional information


VAT This is no longer reclaimable on any works to listed buildings, owing to changes made in the 2010 Budget. 

Unauthorised works

Unauthorised works / enforcement / complaints It is a criminal offence to carry out works to a listed building which would require LBC under Part I, Chapter III of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, without obtaining that consent. A person found guilty of such an offence shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.

As such, it is extremely important that the relevant consent is obtained from the LPA before carrying out any works that require consent. It is also in your interests, as a homeowner, to ensure consents are obtained in order to avoid any problems with LPA searches when selling the property, because this can hold up a sale.

Where there is evidence to suggest unauthorised works to a listed building have been carried out, or are suspected, the matter will be investigated by the LPA Planning Enforcement team, which can result in formal enforcement action where necessary, including prosecution if appropriate.