Just where does alteration end and demolition begin? The answer to this question has been plaguing owners of Britain's estimated 700,000 listed buildings (and 1.7 million unlisted buildings in conservation areas) for many years.
Time after time owners of these buildings have complained that they cannot even pick up a paintbrush without obtaining listed building consent, and that local authority bureaucrats have been over-zealous in their interpretation of well-intentioned laws that were never intended to apply to such minor matters.
This has been a cause of particular friction in instances such as the ones where local authorities have defined the planned removal of a chimney breast or a portico as "demolition".
Since the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Acts in the 1960s many local authorities have been claiming that alteration and demolition are the same thing, preventing many householders living in listed buildings or within conservation areas from carrying out the simplest of tasks.
For owners of unlisted buildings in conservation areas trivial changes like trimming a tree, erecting a fence or changing a front door have required consent. This can be complicated to apply for, and obtaining it can take a long time.
However all this has now changed - or at least planners, conservation officers and other professionals in the business think it has - with a new government directive that theoretically makes it far easier for owners of listed buildings and houses in conservation areas to make alterations to their houses.
The new directive, Circular 14/97, results from a House of Lords ruling earlier this year in which the Town and Country Listed Building and Conservation Areas Act, stating that demolition of unlisted buildings in a conservation area require consent but alterations do not, is clarified. Demolition is now defined as "a proposal to demolish all of a building".
However, it is still unclear as to how the new directive will affect owners of listed buildings because they need special consent for alterations which affect the character of the building, as well as for "demolition" proposals.
"In effect the ruling puts owners of listed buildings in a self-assessment situation as to whether they apply for listed building consent for alterations that fall short of total demolition," said Adrian Dobinson, a partner in the Bath-based Renaissance architectural design practice, who has been campaigning for such a relaxation for 20 years.
"Until there is a history of precedent established through the courts, just what will or won't constitute a change to the character of the building will be at the discretion of the owners and their advisers, in consultation with the local authority.
"The reality is that the vast majority of works short of total demolition can and will now be undertaken without consent."
However, if the local authority considers the proposed alterations alter the historic character of a listed building it is still possible to issue an Article 4 Direction, a little-used device that removes permitted development rights and forces a householder to apply for consent anyway.
Planning committees have sometimes been reluctant to issue Article 4 Directions in the past, as they are obliged to pay compensation if the householder incurs any financial loss as a result of a reduction of his permitted development rights.
"In the absence of effective alternatives this may be the shape of things to come," Mr Dobinson said.
"Owners of listed buildings should be aware that local authorities retain the right to challenge works in retrospect, as happened in the celebrated case of Tory MP Teresa Gorman and her husband, who were heavily fined for making more than 30 illegal alterations to their historic farmhouse home."
Kenneth Dijksman, a local authority planner as well as a writer and broadcaster on planning issues, says: "Fortunately for the conservation lobby this directive is not as radical as it sounds. While some may think it has driven a coach and horses through the listed building legislation, local authorities still have the protection of Article 4, which many authorities use with confidence.
"With listed buildings, works not constituting "demolition" are still likely to require consent by virtue of being alterations.
"The law has been redefined in an unclear way and the listed building legislation still exists. The redefinition is only really a matter of semantics and only time will tell if it has made any real difference."Reuse content