While this might not be immediately obvious, Non Designated Heritage Assets (NDHAs) have been a hot topic this year. The M&S decision brought them to the fore, then we had the Crooked House, everyone’s favourite ‘building-they’ve-never-visited-and-almost-certainly-never-would-have-done’. For a hyper-local issue in the Black Country, the oddness of this otherwise ordinary Victorian house-pub captured the public imagination. It led to a debate about the legal controls over unlisted buildings which have some significance.
Inevitably, Grade III listing, as an idea, got rolled out (again), having been advocated in the past as a climate response by Will Arnold in the AJ, and Kevin Mcloud. Both proposed that ALL (25 Million) UK buildings which are not Designated Heritage Assets (listed buildings Grade I, II*, II) should be designated as Grade III. This would take the designation world far beyond considerations of ‘heritage’.
Would a more sensible approach be to bring all NDHAs into a Grade III category? What does the term ‘NDHA’ even cover? They’re infuriating to deal with. In addition to local lists and ‘positive contributors to Conservation Areas’ already identified, the PPG allows an LPA to claim that any building is an NDHA at any time. There is no system for review, no standards to ensure identifications are robust. That shouldn’t be an issue, as on paper, the protections are appropriately slight. But increasingly, an NDHA identification can dramatically change the direction of an application, and in the case of M&S, Mr Gove gave the loss of an NDHA ‘significant weight’. Local Listing, and NDHA identification are a potent weapon against development, in a lawless corner of the heritage world.
By contrast, listing, while not free from capricious decision-making, has structure and formality to it. It is managed by serious-minded specialists and is double checked before receiving Secretary of State sign-off. Adding similar formality to local listing through Grade III listing would create greater certainty for all involved. But a robust regime requires robust financing; who would administer this massive undertaking at a time of shrinking council budgets? There’s no question that something must be done to address the problem of NDHAs. Andy Street’s comment that “we really want to look at the law to see whether the protection for heritage assets like this is good enough” is not entirely misplaced, but the last thing a beleaguered development industry needs now is strengthened protections for unlisted buildings without such a system being robust and focused. The PPG is right when it says that “Only a minority [of buildings] have enough heritage significance to merit identification as non-designated heritage assets’.
What we need is a robust system that properly and proportionately protects that minority of buildings (which would probably have included the Crooked House), while preventing the devaluing, scattergun approach we currently see. If only the funding and the will existed to make this noble aim a reality.