Property: The day our publican painted over the Georgian brickwork

A building may be historic but if it's not listed it can be altered for the worse.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DESPITE THE pleas of the planners and the protests of many residents, the new licensee of our 200-year-old village pub has applied a coat of thick white paint to the Georgian brick frontage.

With a few sweeps of the brush the whole appearance and patina of the fine facade, with its attractive pattern of Flemish bond brickwork with glazed headers that gives the building its "local distinctiveness", now lies beneath a coat of impervious paint which experts say it would be extremely hard to remove.

Equally sad, according to the historic building specialists, the new owner has set in train a process that will seriously damage, and could ultimately destroy, a fine old building.

Yet the outcry against this action in our village newsletter was counterbalanced by a similar barrage of letters in the next month's issue defending the right of the man to alter his unlisted building entirely as he wishes. A number state that they prefer the building painted white.

This is by no means the first controversy of its kind, centring on perfectly legal changes to unlisted buildings in conservation areas that has caused a local outcry and consternation among planners, who have been powerless to intervene.

Similar cases to this have hit the national headlines in recent years. There was the house in a conservation area in Bath whose owner insisted on painting the front door green, while all the others in the terrace were white, and also the unlisted terraced house with a fine brick frontage in a conservation area in Kensington whose owner painted the frontage white, superimposed with large pink spots.

There is also the ongoing saga of the restaurateur in Islington who rebuilt the facade of his brick-fronted restaurant in a conservation area in a non-matching brick.

These are but a handful of examples of the sort of "horror" in towns and villages that the English Historic Towns Forum was formed to campaign against.

The forum was founded in 1987 with the aim of fighting what its literature calls "an epidemic of alterations which ruin the individual appearance of buildings and dilute the unique architectural character which distinguishes each region of the country".

"Since 1992, we have been battling with successive governments to tighten the regulations that govern the estimated 1.7 million unlisted buildings in the 9,000 conservation areas in England and Wales," says Gordon Somerville, head of planning at Scarborough, Yorkshire, Borough Council.

"Contrary to popular belief unlisted buildings in conservation areas can be much altered without planning permission," Mr Somerville says. "The current situation is unclear, full of grey areas and a complete shambles.

"One of the inconsistencies is that a man like the new licensee in the village pub is not permitted under current regulations to clad his unlisted building with stone, artificial stone, timber, plastic, or tiles, yet he has complete freedom to paint it and completely alter its appearance in a similar way."

Local Authority Conservation officers point out that there is a means of preventing highly damaging alterations in conservation areas by imposing what are known as Article 4 Directions. These are blanket orders that remove what are known as "permitted development rights". However these are rare, because when these are introduced local authorities are obliged to pay compensation if a householder incurs any financial loss as a reduction of his permitted development rights.

"One of the most unfortunate things when historic buildings in conservation areas are painted is the damage to the building," says former local authority conservation expert, Jonathon Taylor.

He instances the damage caused by paint to surfaces which were designed to be left natural. "If you use a paint that is not vapour-permeable - which in effect means the majority of products on the market - and it is applied to a solid-walled building it will ultimately destroy the building." he says.

Adrian Dobinson, who runs a Bath-based architectural design and renovation consultancy, says: "Very often these people do not set out to cause problems intentionally. Often the horrors they perpetrate stem from good intentions. The man who painted the pub probably has no idea that we do not, historically, paint high quality brickwork in this country."

Mr Dobinson's proposed solution is simple. He says that if repairs to buildings were redefined to come under the category of "Alterations" then they would be subject to local authority control. He points out that painting an unlisted building in a conservation area, like the pub in our village, comes under "repairs", while cladding counts as an "alteration".

Other experts are more cautious. The point was underlined by what planners see as a landmark judgement in the House of Lords last year, in which the highest court in the land opted for what it saw as the return of rights to householders. The Lords redefined the terms "building", and "demolition" in the context of town and country planning legislation.

"Demolition was defined as totally or substantially destroying the principal building involved," says Gordon Somerville. "It appears that now bits of historic buildings in conservation areas can be removed without any permission whatsoever.

"This ruling has blown away years of assumptions, namely that partial demolition of an unlisted building in a conservation area was subject to control. Redefine the key word `demolition' and the conservation area control regime loses much of its force.

"As building conservationists we now find ourselves in a worse position than in 1992. These are perilous days for unlisted buildings in conservation areas."

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