Property: Converting the heritage watchdog

Many developers agree with Alan Clark that English Heritage has got 'too big for its boots'. But conservationists insist that preservation is all in the finer details. Penny Jackson reports
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Alan Clark, the former Conservative minister, gave English Heritage something of a roasting in the House of Commons a few weeks ago after his medieval home in Kent was listed on a Buildings at Risk register. He told the Commons that he had been "named and shamed" and that the heritage watchdog had become "too big for its boots".

Criticism of our homes, like our families, is guaranteed to set hackles rising, but English Heritage points out that the decay at Saltwood Castle referred only to the perimeter wall and that Mr Clark was not mentioned by name. Even if the heat has been taken out of this particular dispute, the line between sensitive conservation and overzealous officialdom is a fine one.

English Heritage is a quango that advises the Government on all aspects of historic buildings, as well as involving itself in changes to Grade I and Grade II listed properties. The number of applications for listed building consent has increased enormously over the past few years as the trend for converting redundant buildings into homes, particularly in London, has grown.

Not surprisingly, developers and conservationists don't always see eye to eye. It is not that they fail to agree on the need to preserve old buildings but that they differ on the detail and extent. This week has seen the wraps come off Earl's Terrace, a Georgian terrace in Kensington, London, which has been completely renovated. The 25 houses have been dubbed the new millionaire's row, and since prices start at pounds 3.25 million, it is clear that more than a few improvements have been made to its early 19th-century origins.

But there was a point when John Hunter, of Northacre, the developers, wondered whether they would ever cross the finishing line. "We would have saved ourselves months and months of heartache if we had not had to fight English Heritage on so many points. Our objective was to maintain the character of the terrace, but even though they were in a dangerous state we had to reassemble the staircases with 80 per cent of the original wood. We could have made new ones at exactly the same rake at a fraction of the pounds 30,000 each one cost and I would defy anyone to tell the difference.

"The floors were sloping and there were great gaps under the doors because the backbone of the houses had slipped," says Mr Hunter. "I was told that it was part of the character of the terrace and shouldn't be changed, but I argued that it wasn't originally built with uneven floors." Finally, a structure went in to strengthen the building so the floors could be levelled but the original joists have been kept even though they serve no function. "Do we really sleep better at night knowing that they are there"? asks John Hunter.

"The same with the windows. We could have put in identical windows with sealed units, but because in a certain light the glass appeared slightly tinted, we were only allowed to use single panes of glass. Conservation should mean preserving the best but not without regard for how people want to live. I think the blend of new and old is exciting," he says.

At Observatory Gardens in Kensington, Northacre wanted to replace the porticos and bays missing from a number of the houses. Only when they were able to produce photographic evidence that they had existed before a bomb hit the terrace were they allowed to rebuild them. "I make sure that those working for me know more about a building than the specialists," says John Hunter.

At English Heritage, Philip Davies, regional director for London, is familiar with many of those arguments. The bulk of his work revolves around Georgian terraces and sloping floors are fairly typical. "Some developers promote buildings with uneven floors because people want their historic buildings to be genuine. Same with the walls. Often the brickwork is not bonded together well but it is very easy to tie the skins together, even if there is a bulge in the wall."

Ten years ago, English Heritage would have been arguing with an owner about considering a change of use for a building but now people are falling over themselves to find a derelict warehouse or crumbling tower. "We would never have found a sympathetic use for schools and even public conveniences then," says Davies.

"We would like to have more of a problem-solving role, in terms of making suggestions about how buildings can be used, but we are not able to get involved with every project. Some people will see our role as meddling, but developers do not always recognise the importance of what they are dealing with."

No one disputes that without English Heritage, market forces could lead us back to destructiveness of modernisation: in the 1950s a country house was demolished every week.

Michael Wilson, a developer, architect and contractor who specialises in restoring Grade I properties, has seen the damage done by cost-cutting. "Dire proposals for drab and bland reproductions without regard for the original building," he says. "Once you have a feel for what English Heritage want you can work with them and our aims are the same. I am very much a conservationist so I want to put things back as they were, but it can be an uphill struggle if you want to alter the appearance or add things. The local conservation officer is often the person who gives you most feedback."

At present, he is in the finishing stages of converting Burton House, near Petworth, Sussex, into apartments and has just won an award for the second year running for the best renovated property. Wilson employs his own team of specialist craftsmen.

His biggest frustration is the time it can take to negotiate the various stages with English Heritage. "A simple modification can take months and months to be approved. They may move faster if a building is a deteriorating but delays obviously cost us money."

Earl's Terrace: agents FPD Savills, Chesterfield and WA Ellis. Burton House: remaining apartments from pounds 300,000. Sales office 01798 344164, and agents Hamptons International.