Poisoned Chalice of Owning a Historic Building
Who should pay to maintain our historic buildings? Owners? Local government? National government? Charities? Someone else? Or are they becoming unaffordable?
The question is prompted by the issue of an old barn metaphorically tumbling down on Councillor Emlyn Dole, leader of Carmarthenshire County Council. Cllr Dole’s Barngate experience has generated factual detail (see The Carmarthenshire Herald, August 14th 2015, p.5) but little light on the wider issue.
The Dole family owned old and rather attractive barns on their home at Capel Ifan, near Pontyberem, north of Llanelli. In 2012 Cllr Dole’s wife, the accomplished and well-known singer Gwenda Owen, applied to change a double barn, mainly stone-built, into a beauty salon and two holiday lets, since trimmed to one holiday let plus business use. The original application was granted. When planning officers heard that a significant element of the building – the whole of one barn and a quarter of the other — had been demolished, the council issued an enforcement notice, because any demolition, rebuilding, reconstruction or replacement of structural elements not expressly allowed in the permission would have to be the subject of a separate planning application. This duly arrived, but officers felt it was out of character with the former barn, and recommended refusal.
While there is nothing to stop an owner demolishing a building, unless it is listed or subject to an Article 4 Direction, for example if it is in a conservation area, there is no automatic right to rebuild it. The barns at the Dole residence were not listed, and not in a conservation area, but they were quite picturesque, examples of typical outbuildings 100, 200 years ago. Indeed, according to the Herald, Dyfed Archaeology suggested one of the barns could be at least 400 years old. The councillors on the planning committee decided to visit the site, and contrary to the officers’ recommendation, gave permission for rebuilding in the ‘out of character’ style. Cllr Dole quite properly declared his interest and took no part in the debate.
A new build is so often cheaper, quicker, and incorporates more energy-saving measures than a painstaking conversion. It can cost more, sometimes much more, to convert or rebuild a historic building than it is worth on the open market.
Everywhere you turn, the answer is the same, ‘no money’. With local government starved of cash, and national government wielding the axe, we are told that there is nowhere near enough public money to subsidise privately-owned historic properties, so it falls on the owners. If they let an ancient property fall into disrepair, in theory it can be compulsorily purchased – but there isn’t money for that either.
The conservation officers employed by councils to supervise the renovation and modernisation of listed buildings have a tough job, but if they always insist on original materials and techniques, refuse double glazing and other energy-conserving measures, the buildings are expensive to heat and not particularly comfortable to inhabit. A double blow – greater cost to do the work, greater cost to use the building afterwards.
It’s also a problem that anyone who buys a listed building can be held liable for ‘illegal’ work carried out by previous owners, and have to rectify it. If your hobby is the restoration of listed buildings, well and good, but if you are, like most of us, on a budget and trying to make ends meet, the challenge is often not worth taking on.
Three years ago we nearly bought a thatched cottage, but could not find any company willing to insure it, and that is another headache. Even if you do find an insurer, be prepared for huge premiums, typically in the range £1000 to £2000 a year. It all adds up.
While great houses are successfully maintained by the National Trust, and monuments by bodies such as Cadw and English Heritage, smaller vernacular buildings mostly remain the responsibility of their owners, of whom a great deal is required, but to whom little if any financial assistance is given. The Coalition government of 2010-15 abolished, in 2012, the concession of zero VAT on alterations to listed buildings, and raised the rate to 20%. Repairs and maintenance to listed buildings never were zero-rated, so now all work on such important aspects of our history carry the full rate of VAT – but new homes can normally be constructed VAT-free!
As a first step, to help protect our built heritage, VAT on repairs, maintenance and alterations to listed buildings should be cut completely, and there should be a lower rate of, say, 5% on non-listed buildings over a certain age – 100 years, perhaps. I do not have the information to calculate how much this would cost in VAT receipts foregone, but we would be able to preserve more of our history and culture – and what price on that?
It’s too late for the old barn at Cllr Dole’s family home, but no or low VAT could influence at least some owners of ancient buildings to repair and restore, instead of waiting while the edifice deteriorates to the point of collapse. PDR