Protected Buildings

A Brief Guide to the Legislation

Jonathan Taylor


  Medieval stone carvings adorn the mullions of a church window  

All buildings in the UK are covered by planning controls. The churches, chapels and other places of worship of certain denominations are exempt from aspects relating specifically to the control of listed buildings and conservation areas, as outlined under ‘ecclesiastical exemption’ below. However, planning permission is still required for certain developments, irrespective of their denomination.

This article outlines the current position in Britain, including the implications of the new National Planning Policy Framework, recently introduced in England.


Churches and other places of worship require planning permission from the local planning authority for external alterations and changes in their use, irrespective of their denomination.

Extensions and changes in the external appearance of the building are therefore subject to the planning policies of the local authority which, in turn, are directed by government policy. If the building is also listed or in a conservation area, the application for planning permission will be assessed in the light of specific guidance (see Table 2).


All buildings require alteration from time to time, and historic churches are no exception. Listing is designed to manage change not to prevent it: being listed draws attention to the special significance and quality of a building or structure, and ensures that those aspects are taken into account when considering proposals for modifications and repairs, re-ordering and extensions, or even demolition and redevelopment. Listings are made by government on the advice of the statutory national body and are graded as shown in Table 1.

The Church of England has the largest estate of all the denominations with 13,000 listed churches, and almost 50 per cent of all Grade I and Category A buildings are historic churches, chapels or cathedrals, reflecting the extraordinary quality of their art and architecture and the large number of spectacular medieval churches that have survived.


All secular buildings and some places of worship which are listed or in conservation areas require special consents for specific types of work. Listed building consent is required for the demolition of a listed building or alterations (interior alterations as well as external ones) which affect the building’s character as a listed building. Historic fabric within its ‘curtilage’ constructed prior to 1 July 1948 will also require listed building consent for alteration in the same way, so for example, monuments within the churchyard would also be protected.

Currently, conservation area consent is required for the demolition of an unlisted building in a conservation area. In England, however, the need for CAC is likely to be replaced by an identical need for planning permission under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.


Most places of worship and objects or structures within their curtilage are exempt from secular heritage protection controls, including:

  • listed building consent
  • conservation area consent
  • building preservation notices
  • compulsory acquisition of buildings in need of repair
  • urgent preservation works.

In Scotland exemption is enjoyed by all denominations, but in England and Wales the exemption is limited to those denominations that have an ‘approved system of control’. These are: the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Baptist Union of Wales, Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church.

For all these denominations the exemption applies to church buildings, objects or structures within the buildings or attached to the exterior of a church or cathedral building, and any object or structure within their curtilage constructed before 1 July 1948. This term is not clearly defined, but generally the boundary wall and lychgate are always covered by the exemption, as are monuments and memorials within the churchyard, even if separately listed.

Table 1
    National body Grade/categories (and proportion in each)
  England English Heritage Grade I (2.5%) Grade II* (5.5%) Grade II (92%)
  Scotland Historic Scotland Category A (8%) Category B (50%) Category C(s) (42%)
  Wales Cadw Grade I (2%) Grade II* (6%) Grade II (92%)


The churches and chapels of other denominations (in England and Wales) are not covered by the exemption, nor are the places of worship of other religions, such as synagogues and mosques. Other listed buildings such as the residence of a member of the clergy are also considered to be separate from the place of worship, even if mentioned in the same list entry, and are not exempt. Full listed building or conservation area controls apply in all these cases.

Where an application is proposed in England and Wales, the exempt denominations are required to advertise the proposals and to consult the local planning authority, relevant national amenity societies and the statutory national body (English Heritage or Cadw). The decision-making body of the denomination is required to take their representations into account. Furthermore, it has ‘a specific duty to take into account, along with other factors, the desirability of preserving ecclesiastical listed buildings, the importance of protecting features of special historic, archaeological or architectural interest and any impact on the setting of the church’.

As the document New Design Work in Historic Places of Worship explains, English Heritage considers that new work in historic places of worship should:

1. be based on an understanding of the cultural and heritage significance of the building

2. minimise harm to the special historic, archaeological, architectural and artistic interest of the building, its contents and setting

3. bring with it public benefits, such as securing the long-term use of the building, which outweigh any harm to significance

4. achieve high standards of design, craftsmanship and materials.

Table 2
    Primary legislation Government guidance
  England Town & Country Planning Act 1990

Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990

National Planning Policy Framework 2012
  Wales Planning Policy Wales (Edition 4, February 2011)
Circulars 61/96 and 1/98, Planning and the Historic Environment
  Scotland Town & Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997
Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation
Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997
Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas (Historic Scotland 1997)


Ecclesiastical buildings which are used for ecclesiastical purposes are exempt from listed building controls under section 54 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997. However, under a voluntary scheme run by Historic Scotland, reviewed every three years, listed building control is now applied to the exteriors of the churches of the participating denominations. These are the Associated Presbyterian Churches, Baptist Union of Scotland, Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church in Scotland, Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Scottish Episcopal Church, United Free Church of Scotland, and United Reformed Church Scotland Synod (formerly Scottish Congregational Church).

These denominations are now required to submit proposals affecting the exterior of an ecclesiastical building to the local authority where the work would require listed building consent, were it not for the exemption. These applications are then considered in the usual way, and Historic Scotland is consulted where a Category A or B listed building is concerned.

If the authorities cannot agree to a proposal and the applicant still wishes to proceed, the proposal is passed by the local authority to the denomination’s own ‘Decision-Making Body’. Under the scheme, the DMB is expected to adhere to the guidance contained within the Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas, (Historic Scotland 1997) and take into consideration any comments made by the Historic Scotland Inspectorate, the planning authorities and other parties.


Statutory guidance is given by central government to local planning authorities to clarify the requirements imposed by primary legislation. For example, both the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and its equivalent in Scotland state that ‘no person shall execute or cause to be executed 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, unless the works are authorised’. However, neither act defines this ‘character’ further, nor how it should be assessed by the planning authority and protected. Guidance is required. In Scotland this is given by the Memorandum of Guidance. In England and Wales it is given by planning policy.

  Gilded organ case, St German's, Cardiff  
  Parishioners are responsible for extraordinary treasures, from fine medieval carvings (title illustration, Broadhembury, Devon) to Arts & Crafts fittings and finishes (above, St German's, Cardiff). It is important that the planning system is correctly understood as a mechanism for supporting conservation and managing change.  

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced in March 2012, replaced all previous planning guidance in England, including Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment (PPS5). The new NPPF includes just three pages of policy specific to the conservation of the historic environment, compared to 11 pages in PPS5, and 55 in the earlier policy document Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment (PPG15). However, the Practice Guide which accompanied PPS5 has survived and, in the words of the June 2012 revision note which now prefaces the document: 'The PPS5 Practice Guide remains a valid and Government endorsed document pending the results of a review of guidance supporting national planning policy… [it] remains almost entirely relevant and useful in the application of the NPPF'.

The key concepts outlined in PPS5 have generally survived and government policy has remained largely unchanged. However, there is minimal guidance on the interpretation of the key concepts, and some significant omissions, hence the relevance of the Practice Guide.

The bulk of the guidance specific to the protection of listed buildings and conservation areas is contained in section 12, ‘Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment’. Instead of the term ‘character’ referred to in the Act, the NPPF uses the term ‘significance’. Paragraph 128 gives guidance on its assessment, requiring an applicant to describe ‘the significance of any heritage assets affected, including any contribution made by their setting. The level of detail should be proportionate to the assets’ importance and no more than is sufficient to understand the potential impact of the proposal on their significance’.

Subsequent paragraphs define how the local authority should consider the significance when assessing an application which affects a listed building (or ‘designated heritage asset’). For example, paragraph 132 states ‘When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be’.

In this way the requirements of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 are explored and some aspects clarified, but updated government guidance is essential.

The NPPF policies relating to the historic environment are relevant to all proposals affecting historic buildings, not just those that are listed or in conservation areas. A good understanding of this document is essential for all planning applications, and its policies are likely to be observed closely by the church authorities too.


The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is currently consulting on proposals to reduce both the circumstances in which LBC is required and the level of information applicants are required to submit in England. The Welsh Government is currently undertaking a scoping exercise of the historic environment of Wales to help shape the future policy for the heritage protection framework for Wales. This in turn will influence the context of a Heritage Protection Bill for Wales which is due to be introduced in 2014-15.



Historic Churches, 2012


THIS ARTICLE was prepared with the help of Charles Mynors, English Heritage, Cadw and Historic Scotland by Jonathan Taylor MSc IHBC, who is joint editor of Historic Churches, editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited.

Further information


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