Conservation Policy and Legislation

Shades of Grey

Michael Davies


  The facade of a Grade II* listed country house (1692) in West Wales, following extensive conservation

Dan walked across the room and sat down. They exchanged pleasantries but soon got down to business. He bit his lip nervously and loosened his tie as Miss Jones sighed and touched her face thoughtfully. ‘Is this what she expected’, he wondered, ‘or will she be disappointed?’ As she looked up their eyes met and she smiled and said: ‘The cornice is a little deep for an upper room but I’m happy with the general principle.’ (Seriously, what did you expect? This is a professional publication.)

Many of us have been in this scenario, on one side of the table or the other – an architect and a conservation officer trying to agree how alterations and restoration might be achieved. A meeting of minds perhaps, but how often do they really meet? As a practising conservation architect for over 25 years I have often been there, although these days I don’t think I bite my lip so much. The whole system appears to be built upon various ‘shades of grey’, but it often goes deeper than that.

The design process can be very difficult – an architect might spend many weeks trying to develop a scheme under the burden of legislation and policy while also negotiating the very challenging philosophies that underpin conservation thinking. Add to that the expectations of a client who’s unfamiliar with the principles and complexities of heritage protection, and a less than purist solution sometimes emerges.

While shades of grey in legislation and policy are not welcomed by people looking for consistency and certainty in decision making, they do allow for manoeuvre and negotiation to achieve a pragmatic solution, one that has a bit of give and take, or compromise. In my experience, conservation has always been about compromise and negotiating an agreeable solution between the architect (or surveyor/engineer), the local authority and specialist bodies such as English Heritage in the interests of the historic building. This is best achieved when all parties have a high degree of expertise and experience.

It is also true that conservation thinking has moved on in the last 20 years. During this time there has been a greater acceptance of change in the historic environment, allowing buildings to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing demands being placed upon them. Patterns of building use have changed leaving many historical buildings redundant, from churches and chapels no longer needed for worship, to the workshops and warehouses of abandoned industries. Now high street commercial properties are also under threat.

This transition has generally been embraced under the umbrella of ‘the management of change’, change that is delicate and requires a particular skill, and which ultimately provides the sustainable adaptation of our historic assets.


  Facade before restoration with mismatched windows Restored facade with matching windows and new yellow ochre finish
  Left, the front facade before restoration with oak cross mullioned windows on the upper floor, and modern sash windows on the ground floor. Right, the restored facade with matching cross-mullioned windows on both floors, arguably enhancing the overall historic character of house.

Section 7 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 says that listed building consent (LBC) is required for ‘any works for the demolition of a listed building or for its alteration or extension in any manner which would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest.’

Paul Drury’s 2003 report, Streamlining Listed Building Consent, examined the definition of the terms used in section 7 of the Act. The report suggested that what constitutes an ‘effect’ on the character of a listed building is at the heart of the issue of what needs consent. Consent is required for works that would affect the character of the building as one of ‘special architectural or historic interest’. Thus what is being protected is that which makes the building of special interest, and which justifies its inclusion on the list, not any and every aspect of its interest or significance to anyone.

This suggests that a great deal more restoration and alteration work could be done without the need for consent. However, it would be a brave applicant – and conservation officer – who would adopt/allow this approach because it is fraught with difficulties.

Take simple repointing for example. Allowing a building owner to repoint a wall without being sure that the correct mortar was being used would be a risk. If it was later found that the wall had been repointed with cement and not lime, for example, enforcement could result, an action which all parties would wish to avoid. Or perhaps the original lime mortar did not really need to be removed and repointing was suggested by an unqualified builder, resulting in a loss of original fabric. These are issues that might only be recognised by a skilled conservation professional or accredited builder/ craftsman.

A case in point is a listed gate pier which had recently fallen down. The owner wanted to rebuild the stone pier as quickly as possible using the existing materials, but the local authority insisted on an LBC application. As the owner’s architect, I pointed out that this was not necessary as we were rebuilding the existing pier and there was no alteration involved. Unfortunately, while debating this point our client, against our advice, decided to go ahead and rebuild the pier using cement mortar. The local authority was diligent enough to recognise that cement had been used and started threatening enforcement. An LBC application has now been submitted and the client has agreed to rebuild the pier, once consent is granted.

In this instance the local authority was vindicated in its actions for going beyond the legislation and requesting an application. Other officers, however, have been known to be much more lenient with their interpretations and may have allowed more significant works to take place without much scrutiny and little or no formality.


‘Repair as found’ is a well-worn philosophy and has been the mantra of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) for many years. But should we simply accept such an approach when alterations have been a big part of our history and indeed add great interest to our rich architectural heritage? Being able to identify the various periods of development is one of the great attractions of studying buildings. So why do some still feel we should preserve everything as we find it, believing that ‘it’s all part of the story of the history and development of the building?’ Does this hold true when some parts are fairly mundane and of no real intrinsic value? It is as though we are admitting we lack the ability or confidence to decide what is significant so we’ll retain everything, just in case. This philosophy suggests that you cannot enhance significance, or that each and every element of a building is automatically significant because the building is listed. There appears to be a conflict between the world’s oldest conservation body and current statutory guidance and the principles of conservation as expounded by English Heritage and Cadw.

Conservation Principles sets out the framework within which English Heritage manages its own estate as well as the thinking that guides its advice to others, and shows how buildings can accommodate change successfully. Cadw published its version of Conservation Principles in 2011.

  Restored cross-mullioned window from interior, with deep reveals and built-in window seat  
  Restored window from the inside: this is more about removing an offending item than restoring a room for restoration's sake, which would not always be the right approach.  

Armed with these forward-thinking documents our practice made an LBC application for repairs, alterations and an extension to a small country house in West Wales. The application had a long and bumpy ride through the LBC process but through a series of compromises the application was eventually approved. We fought very hard over one particular issue, and while our client was not overly concerned about the outcome, I was particularly committed to achieving the result I felt would benefit the historic integrity of this particular building. The Grade II* house in question was built in 1692 and had been altered in various ways over the centuries. The front facade of the house was symmetrical with the original oak cross-mullioned windows surviving on the first floor, and four sliding sash windows on the ground floor. The sash windows appeared to be quite late, and an investigation revealed they had had very few coats of paint from new, suggesting that they were probably 20th century. The facade also had panels of pargetting that were unusual for this part of the country. I felt that the facade had been designed as a symmetrical and balanced composition, and the common sash windows detracted from this composition (see illustrations). Furthermore, the finest room in the house was the front ground floor living room, which has a heavy beamed and plastered ceiling and ornate plastered overmantel. From within, the sash windows looked very weak and were detrimental to the strong masculine aesthetic of the principal room.

The conservation officer was adamant that the sash windows were part of the building’s history and should remain, and his view was supported by the SPAB. In order to move the project forward we conceded. However, while on site we made a second application for changing the sash windows. This time we cited Cadw’s newly published Conservation Principles and particularly its guidance on understanding heritage values which takes account of aesthetic value: in the case of our country house I felt that aesthetics were a significant consideration. Cadw also gives guidance on restoration and states that ‘The restoration of the historic asset will normally only be acceptable if: The enhanced heritage value of the elements that would be restored [the oak windows] decisively outweighs the value of those that would be lost [the sash windows].’

The completed facade now has all eight oak windows either repaired or restored. The approach taken clearly contravenes the principle of ‘repair as found’ but it does recognise the overall contribution made by the aesthetics of the facade to the building’s heritage value while ensuring that only the least significant fabric has been lost.


When planning works to our built heritage it is clear that each case needs to be judged on an individual basis. How far are we prepared to go to save our historic buildings, particularly those at severe risk? If you haven’t experienced ‘enabling development’, in whatever form it takes, you will have heard or read about it. It clearly has its merits, particularly in a depressed market where the conservation deficit destroys any prospect of viability. But there have been opportunists who have given this creative form of rescue a bad name and clearly made many people deeply suspicious and inclined to question its merits.

  Interior of dilapidated Victorian greenhouse with rusting ironwork, broken windows and peeling paint
  A greenhouse built to house an indoor cricket pitch which is now under threat: enabling development might be the only way to secure its future

A very large greenhouse adjacent to a modest country house was built as an indoor cricket pitch during the 19th century but is in a very poor and partially collapsed condition (right). The owner, who inherited the building, has proposed a creative means of rescue as the cost of restoration alone is enormous. However, the local authority will not entertain conversion of adjacent farm buildings to fund the restoration. It is difficult to see how this building can provide a viable and sustainable restoration plan on its own. Clearly a covered cricket pitch attached to a small private dwelling is unlikely to be sustainable, especially with a £500,000 capital cost. This project desperately needs the support of the local authority conservation officer in finding an imaginative solution if this unusual building is not to be lost forever, and again a healthy dose of compromise is required.

It is clear that very little legislation is black and white and almost always requires interpretation, but I am sure most would agree that conservation practice is also not exact or prescriptive and has many grey areas. In my experience those who stick rigidly to the wording of the legislation and try to interpret guidance literally often lack confidence in their own understanding. Greater knowledge and understanding is the way to better interpretation. It takes many years of experience to acquire the tools needed to tackle the challenges of conservation and compromise.


The recession has seen the number of experienced conservation officers reduced by a third since 2006, many of whom have been replaced by planning officers with little experience of conservation issues. Many local authorities and public bodies appear to be struggling in this area, lacking some of the basic levels of knowledge and expertise. The private sector is increasingly expected to provide evidence of expertise through the accreditation system as a demonstration that it can provide a ‘safe pair of hands’. However, the same cannot be said for the public sector. As the economy improves it is likely that the construction sector, which has been restrained for the longest period in living memory, will bounce back quickly and I suspect that the public sector will be ill prepared for such an event.

Recognising significance is one of the first principles of conservation, but having the confidence to make big decisions is equally important, otherwise we will be remembered as the generation that ‘froze’. It’s perhaps impossible to take the grey areas out of conservation, after all, that’s where the fun is; but there certainly needs to be a tightening up of understanding and interpretation of guidance. Most conservation officers work in isolation in their local authority department, and that in itself can lead to doubt about some difficult and grey decision-making. Of course, each person is different, and the system will never be perfect, but protecting our heritage is a high priority which very few contest and more support for those at the coalface would be very welcome.

And what of Dan? Well, he still sees Miss Jones regularly and they have their little disagreements about points of detail, but over the years they have both learned the art of compromise, and the historic environment (at least on Miss Jones’ patch) is much the richer for it.



The Building Conservation Directory, 2014


MICHAEL DAVIESBSc(Hons) BArch DipCons(AA) IHBC AABC RIBA is a chartered architect and director of Davies Sutton Architects. His practice specialises in conservation, rescuing buildings from ruin, and designing modern buildings for the historic environment.

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