Six months after he applied for listed building consent for a green retrofit and rebuild of his Grade II-listed home in northern England, Andrew is still waiting for an answer. He first approached the council for advice in 2021, he says, but still hasn’t received what he needs. He could find hardly any suitable guidance from Historic England, the public conservation body, and when he did follow its advice, he discovered the council does not. And the worst thing — for reasons revealed later — is that he’s almost certain his application is going to be rejected.
“When it comes to renovating an old property, you don’t know what you can and can’t do; it’s a real frustration,” says Andrew, who declined to give his full name, fearing it could imperil his project.
Across the UK, owners of historic homes committed to green retrofits are having their efforts blocked or delayed by an overstretched planning system mired, they say, in confusion over how it should treat protected properties.
Improving the efficiency of Britain’s homes is vital if the UK is to reach its net zero target by 2050. The large number of older properties — nearly 5mn homes across England, roughly a fifth of the total, were built before 1919 — often lack modern insulation methods and materials, meaning they emit a disproportionate share of emissions.
Retrofits will reduce household bills, too: just 10 per cent of homes in England built before 1919 have an energy-efficiency rating of C or higher, according to government data, compared with 40 per cent of homes built after that date.
Many owners of the country’s 3.15mn protected homes — those with either listed status or that fall within conservation areas — are leaning into the challenge by improving insulation and installing greener heating and electricity systems.
Planning department applications with the words “solar panel” in the title increased from 1,021 in 2019 to 2,702 in 2021, according to Resi, an architectural services company, which makes planning applications on behalf of its clients. Those referencing heat pumps increased from 473 to 1,479.
But the planning system is struggling to cope. The home-improvement boom triggered by lockdowns and working from home increased demand — 24 per cent more planning applications were lodged between January and March 2021 than in the last full quarter before the pandemic started, according to government data. But lockdowns and social-distancing requirements cut councils’ capacity to process planning applications and conduct site visits.
As councils work to clear the backlog, homeowners are experiencing long delays. Applications processed within the government’s eight-week target fell from 79 per cent in the three months to December 2019 to 70 per cent in the same period last year, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Owners of protected homes are hardest hit. Those in conservation areas are now waiting 21 days longer than they were before the pandemic on average; for those outside these areas, wait time has increased by 9 days, says Resi.
Joe Whitworth, head of technical operations at Resi, says that applications involving solar panels, heat pumps and insulation typically take longer and are rejected more than those without. “The number of applications missing the target significantly is also increasing; those from historic homes, which are typically more complicated, comprise a disproportionate share of these,” he adds.
To handle the growing pressure on planning departments, some councils are limiting the guidance available to homeowners in preparing an application, according to Darren Rodwell, the housing representative for the Local Government Association, the national membership body for local authorities.
“[They] have taken measures to reduce contact hours, including suspending pre-application meetings or limiting contact with officers outside of the formal application process,” he says.
Andrew couldn’t get a pre-app meeting with his local planning department, so he made his listed building consent application blind. The council then advised him to withdraw it, since it was likely to fail.
“But we had no detailed feedback about what we needed to change, and no way of getting it,” he says. “So, we made the application anyway: it was the only way of finding out what we needed to change.” As well as the delay to the project he will have to spend £2,500 to redo the drawings, he says. But that is dwarfed by the growing project costs, thanks to high inflation in the construction sector, he says. “This could be a £600,000 build, the inflation while we wait is a completely different sum to [the resubmission costs].”
In part, local councils’ ability to support green retrofits is hampered by a shortage of conservation officers. Between 2007 and 2022 the number of full-time conservation specialists employed by local authorities fell from 1,224 to 526, according to Historic England.
A government representative acknowledges there have been difficulties: “We recognise that many planning authorities face capacity challenges, which is why we have launched a £9mn fund to deliver specific training on retrofitting buildings and to increase capacity across local planning authorities.”
The high turnover of officers means owners may see several throughout the life of their project, which can make the advice uneven and the process unpredictable.
“We’ve been in our property for two years and we are on our fourth,” says Kit Knowles, of Ecospheric, which specialises in energy-saving renovations for protected buildings, and whose Grade II*-listed eco-renovation was featured in House & Home in 2021. “Take a system stressed to breaking point, add a year’s worth of projects backed up, a load of staff moving on, and a shortage of staff to replace them, and I can’t see things improving.”
Errors are exacerbating the problem. According to Whitworth, councils have been mistakenly refusing work that should be allowed under so-called permitted development rights (PDR). “[These] are clear and don’t involve a subjective assessment like planning applications: an applicant either meets them or does not.”
Whitworth points to an ongoing case in London where a planning authority rejected a PDR application the day before its eight-week response period expired. In correspondence seen by the FT, Resi put to the council that the judgment was wrong, the council then admitted its error and asked Resi to submit the same application again.
“An application that should have been passed in a few weeks will now take more than four months — a delay that is hugely costly to homeowners, pushing build-ready contractors to delay works while the council reconsiders an application which has been fundamentally misunderstood by officers,” says Whitworth.
Some retrofits of protected buildings require planning permission; work on listed buildings may also require listed building consent. Both are granted by local councils. Historic England — which grants listed status — has a statutory role to advise them and provide guidance to homeowners. It received £179mn of government funding in 2021/22.
But experts and homeowners say the guidance is inadequate and that Historic England’s advice is sometimes ignored.
Knowles contrasts the extensive information the organisation provides on individual measures — such as the materials and methods for insulating roofs — with a scarcity of best practice examples available to those about to embark on a wholesale green retrofit.
The Heritage Responds Report, published last year by the Historic Environment Forum, a group funded by Historic England, is intended as a blueprint for making protected buildings more energy efficient. Among 26 case-study examples, which include a church, a wharf, the UK’s largest seawater lido and a 25,000-acre Norfolk estate, there is only one private family home, which is neither listed nor in a conservation area.
“The report is woefully inadequate,” says Knowles.
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, says the next edition will include more examples. But Knowles says what is really needed is thematic guidance on approaches that are likely to pass or fail an application “They could say: there are five ways of insulating a floor, this is the one that typically would do the least damage and give the best value for money.”
When there is guidance, and homeowners follow it, they may run into difficulties because planning officers disregard Historic England’s advice.
Andrew was planning to fit separate double-glazed windows set back from the existing windows, leaving the external windows intact. According to Historic England, this so-called secondary glazing does not typically require listed building consent. But, thanks to a chance meeting with his local conservation officer, Andrew discovered that his local council did require consent for it.
Wilson says that such cases are rare, but acknowledges that decisions may be at odds with the organisation’s guidance, which councils are not bound to take. “I’m not defending the inconsistency — we obviously don’t welcome that — but it is only advice,” he says.
The government did not address the FT’s question about why Historic England’s advice is sometimes not followed, but a representative said: “We are reviewing the planning barriers households face when installing energy-efficient measures in conservation areas and listed buildings.”
The organisation’s advice has been bypassed in some high-profile cases, too. In September 2021, Historic England granted emergency Grade II-listed status to the Brutalist Dorman Long tower in Redcar, on the Yorkshire coast, to save it from demolition. Four days later, Nadine Dorries, the then newly appointed secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, delisted the tower so it could be demolished.
In some cases, councils have overruled the organisation on environmental grounds. King’s College, in Cambridge, applied for permission for 492 panels on the roof of its chapel, one of the city’s most famous buildings, which would heat and light the chapel on their own.
Historic England objected, saying the panels would “harm people’s appreciation of the Chapel’s extraordinary architectural character”. In February, the council ignored the objections and approved the project.
Despite the obstacles, many individuals have completed successful green retrofit projects on protected homes that illustrate what can be achieved.
Last year, Alan James, 60, completed a five-year, £55,000 eco-renovation on his 1875 manse house near Hexham, Northumberland. James estimates he saved £15,105 in energy costs and cut 21.2 tonnes of CO₂ emissions last year on account of the renovation.
He has replaced the oil-fired boiler with an air-source heat pump. Large Tesla batteries store electricity generated by the 32 solar panels on the roof, to use at peak times, when electricity from the grid is most expensive, rather than feeding it back into the grid where the payments are relatively small. The batteries cost £11,700 in total, and the savings on using grid energy mean they will pay for themselves in a little more than five years. “We’re living, in 2023, the sort of life in the sort of house that everyone needs to be living in by 2033,” he says.
Small changes can have a large impact. When Diane Hubbard, an energy-conservation expert, visited the Grade-II listed house of FT colleague Leyla Boulton last year, her first step was to seal up the house’s five chimney breasts with plastic sheets to block up draughts.
“Chimneys really frustrate me,” says Hubbard. “I still find it crazy that these are overlooked and I see it loads. They have a big impact on fuel bills.”
Knowles estimates that a combination of airtightness, heat-recovery ventilation and effective insulation can cut energy use by three-quarters in a typical large family home that is subject to a listing.
Without them, other energy and cost-saving opportunities may not be available. Heat pumps work most efficiently when transferring small amounts of heat into a home, rather than crossing large temperature gradients. “Install a heat pump in a home that isn’t very airtight and it’s going to cost you more than before,” says Hubbard.
Local efforts by homeowners are also helping spread best practices.
While Andrea Lally Kukrika found the planning application process good in general, the council at first asked her to withdraw her application for triple glazing on her Hampstead house, which is in a conservation area, saying there was no precedent in the borough, Camden. When her architect found one, the application was approved; now, Lally Kukrika is preparing to publish the details on the website of the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum, a local volunteer group consulted by residents and the council on planning matters.
“It will be there for people to use as guidance for their project,” she says. “Somehow, there needs to be better communication about what is possible.”
Andrew is learning the hard way what his local council will and won’t allow. But he remains committed to his project despite the obstacles — and the cost. He bought the home for £250,000. His budget for the rest of the project is roughly £550,000.
“Economically, the project makes no sense. But we want to show what can be done to make a building as energy-efficient as possible, using all the technology we can,” he says. “This is the art of the possible.”
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