Government Planning Policy and the Historic Interior

Rosemarie MacQueen


Legislation enabling the protection of the historic environment has a long pedigree stretching back to the last quarter of the 19th century. Having recognised society's concerns over the loss of the finite resource of historic buildings, legislation grew to protect them. In time this was developed by compiling a register of buildings of architectural and historic interest (the Statutory List), and then by developing a series of controls over their demolition or alteration. The listed building owner or agent of today needs to be aware of not just the acts, circulars or planning policy guidance relating to the built heritage, but also how that law operates in practice and how it is interpreted by the administrators and the courts.


The statutory background for the protection of the interiors of listed buildings is exactly the same as that for the exteriors. In England, the relevant act which provides the controls is the Planning [Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas] Act 1990 (referred to as 'the Act'). The principal consolidation Act is the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and further provisions are set out in the Planning [Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas] Regulations 1990, and Directions. Acts and Orders set out the framework for control while the Directions and Regulations describe the administrative steps in the process.

Section 1 (5) of the Act defines that a listed building is one that is included in the statutory list and includes, inter alia, 'any object or structure fixed to the building'. From Section 7 we learn that works of demolition or alteration or extension 'in any manner which affects the subject's character as a building of special architectural or historic interest' must be authorised by the local planning authority (LPA) or the Secretary of State.

Section 16 (2) of the Act describes the key responsibility for the LPA or Secretary of State in considering whether to grant listed building consent for proposed works submitted as a listed building consent application: 'Special regard' is required 'to the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any feature of special architectural or historic interest which it possesses'.

The role of Circulars and Planning Policy Guidance (PPGs) is to give the Government's current policy guidance on particular subject areas. This advice shapes the interpretation and weight given to aspects of the legislation by the courts. So, in coming to a decision, the LPA needs to pay special attention to the relevant guidance, which in England is PPG 15 - Planning and the Historic Environment.

In respect of interiors, Paragraph 3.2 of PPG 15 makes it explicit that controls apply to 'all works, both external and internal, that would affect a building's special interest, whether or not the particular feature is specifically mentioned in the list description'. It also states that repairs that constitute alterations require consent, but the consideration of whether the works are alteration or demolition is 'a matter of fact or degree'.

Most importantly, despite extensive critical lobbying, paragraph 3.3 emphasises that there should be 'a general presumption in favour of the preservation of listed buildings, except where a convincing case can be made out against the criteria set out in this section' (paras. 3.5 - 3.19) 'for alteration or demolition'. Indeed PPG 15 states that protecting the listed building from unnecessary demolition and unacceptable alteration should be the prime consideration for the LPA in determining such applications.


So, in considering alterations to the interiors of listed buildings, the PPG assessment criteria include: the importance of the interior in terms of its intrinsic architectural and historic interest and rarity in national and local terms, (further explanation of which is contained in paras. 6.10 - 6.13); the particular features (including plan form) that justify its listed status; and the extent to which the proposed works might bring substantial benefits to the community by subsequent associated economic regeneration.

PPG 15 stresses the benefits of economically viable uses for buildings which may require a degree of adaptation of the building. The test for the LPA is succinctly summarised as identifying the optimum, but not necessarily the most profitable, viable use compatible with the fabric and interior of the building.

Paragraph 3.12 is worthy of particular note as it emphasises not only the importance of the obvious visual features of staircases and decorative plasterwork, but also the spaces and layout of the building, including the archaeological or technological interest of the surviving structure and services. It underlines that these elements may count just as much in simple, functional, vernacular properties as in the grander mansion.

The cumulative accretion of minor works is warned against because of the risk of an incremental lessening of the building's historic value. Yet the PPG also acknowledges that a degree of sensitive alteration may sustain and contribute to that same evolving history. A strong warning is given in paragraph. 3.15 against the unacceptability of adopting a 'gut and stuff' or facadist approach for most listed buildings, again reinforcing the care to be taken over the consideration of interior works.

The PPG offers particular advice for circumstances and events that frequently impact on proposals for internal alteration. Paragraph. 3.24 recommends the use of conditions to ensure the retention or recording of suspected hidden features, or the use of controlled, exploratory opening up before commitment to particular proposals. Similarly, the various needs of Building and Fire Regulations should be made explicit and consequently considered prior to the determination of listed building consent. Flexible approaches on structural matters are emphasised to ensure minimal damage to the existing fabric. A brief but useful mention of fixtures in paragraphs 3.30 - 3.33 acts as a reminder as to why wall panelling, chimney pieces or painted and plastered ceilings are construed as part of the building.


Agents and LPAs will find helpful guidance in Annex B.3 of PPG 15 which lists the type and level of detail required to validate a listed building application, including the potential to require interior photographs.

Annex C, PPG 15 is of particular value as it summarises the general principles of good practice in relation to alterations to listed buildings. It moves from the general to the specific: from the need to understand the structure and characteristics of distinct types of buildings, and the need to research and understand the buildings development, alteration and addition over time, to examples of features which are important. C 58 to 69 describes various internal works, maintaining that 'interior plans and individual features of interest should be respected and left unaltered as far as possible'. The paragraphs which follow make specific reference to walls, plasterwork, chimneypieces and chimney breasts, staircases, interior plasterwork and decoration, and floor surfaces. Guidance on floor strengthening, elimination of dry rot and the introduction of services in reversible, low impact and non-damaging ways complete the advice.

Listed building consent is required for a wide range of works to a typical listed building. For residential buildings a common application might include the installation of an en-suite bathroom or fitted kitchen or double glazing. For commercial properties a common application might include floor strengthening, opening up between rooms and compartmentation of fire lobbies.

The questions for the LPA should always be the same when considering a proposal: do the works require consent? Do the works materially affect the character of the listed building? If the works are damaging and are the only solution, are there mitigating circumstances such as other policy benefits that outweigh their disadvantages? Is the alteration 'reversible', allowing the fabric to be returned to its original state in the future?

The importance of retaining floor plans and their features is now well established, and inspectors have supported LPAs at appeal on alterations such as the sub-division of large spaces; the installation of suspended ceilings; lateral conversions to amalgamate two properties; and the removal of all or part of staircases. On the other hand, viability and reversibility have featured in certain cases where the inspector has been persuaded by the risk to an otherwise vacant property, or by the low impact of a proposal. For example, an inspector might allow an appeal for a lateral conversion on the condition that connecting doors are inconspicuously detailed as jib doors, blending with the wall when closed.

Difficulties remain over some aspects of the care of historic interiors. For example it may be difficult for LPAs to persuade some institutions that floor loading requirements cannot be achieved in all instances, or to persuade applicants of the good sense in employing expert structural and architectural advice. Problems may arise between the requirements of building control, environmental health, and planning within the same LPA, as each operates under different legislation, often with little co-ordination. Applicants expecting sound and expert judgement on proposals may also find inconsistencies between various LPAs. Even monitoring the level of unauthorised alteration inside a building can defeat some LPAs as access is rarely sought or obtained without triggering receipt of a listed building consent application.


There is a lobby to reduce the level of control over the interiors of Grade II buildings. There are various justifications put forward including the suggestion that Conservation Area legislation provides sufficient protection for their external appearance, wherein lies their chief interest. However most buildings on the statutory list were included without the benefit of internal access, and the quality of the majority of their interiors remains undocumented.

However, national and local amenity societies are fiercely protective of the 95 per cent of the listed buildings of Grade II status. They oppose de-regulation in this sphere and point to the fact that over 90 per cent of applications for alterations are allowed through normally after amendments have been negotiated. They see an added potential and actual bonus in the administering of such applications, as the procedures invariably include on-site inspections by the LPA / EH, with the accompanying opportunity for monitoring, dissemination of advice and best practice, allowing a partnership approach to the care of the heritage. They consider that a facade-only approach would result in a superficial heritage that is only skin-deep, thereby lacking in veracity. These matters are likely to be debated in 1996 following the publication of the expected Heritage Green Paper.

This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1996

Update, September 2012
Recently there have been several significant changes in UK government planning guidance and policy.

In England Planning Policy Guidance Note 15: Conservation of the Historic Environment (PPG15, 1994) and Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG16, 1990) have been cancelled by the Government. Initially replaced by Planning Policy Statement 5 (PPS5) in March 2010, current policy guidance for England is now given in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) issued in March 2012. Further guidance is proposed, but in the meantime the guide which originally accompanied PPS5 remains in force - see PPS5 Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide.

In Scotland the principal statutory guidance on policy is now Scottish historic environment policy (SHEP), which was published in December 2011, with subsidiary guidance given in Historic Scotland’s Managing Change leaflets. These documents together replace the Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas published in 1998.


ROSEMARIE MACQUEEN BSc (Soc); AA Dip Plan; Dip Arch Hons; AA Dip Cons; DMS; MRTPI, is the Assistant Divisional Director (Development) responsible for the management of conservation and urban design at Westminster City Council; Member of RTPI Conservation in the Built Environment Panel; London region representative, Association of Conservation Officers, Executive Committee Georgian Group; corresponding member of SPAB Technical Panel.

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