'Outdated and ramshackle' listing system to be replaced

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Britain's notable buildings, landscapes, neolithic remains and historical oddments are about to see a quiet revolution in the way they are preserved for the nation.

Andrew McIntosh, the Heritage minister, in a move likely to transform regulations and produce a White Paper before 2006, inaugurated a "thoughtful and cohesive" English Heritage pilot scheme yesterday to test major changes to the way listed buildings and sites are cared for.

Mr McIntosh said that Britain had dealt with its physical heritage in a "ramshackle and haphazard way that dates back 60 years". The minister said: "We're very good at managing imperfect systems. We rub along."

English Heritage led the charge, announcing a number of challenging sites to enter this brave new world of conservation. Pilot projects will include Hampshire water meadows, the iconic but internally klutzy Centrepoint office block in London, historic Cornish bridges, Kenilworth Castle, Langdale neolithic remains in Cumbria and London Underground's Piccadilly line.

They will be the first to benefit from pre-planned strategic management of listed buildings and sites, and, if necessary, physical changes to them. The management teams willcomprise site users or operators, and local authority and English Heritage representatives.

That modernisation will be supported in English Heritage's 15 pilot projects by a unified listing system that equalises the status of listing, registering and scheduling. And that will be underwritten by a single designation system allowing different elements of a site to be treated as one entity, which will slash costs and red tape involved in applications for change.

Britain's cultural protection system, which oversees the security of more than 400,000 historic buildings and sites, is often touted as the envy of the outside world. Closer to home it is regarded as an outdated and constipated lash-up composed of red tape, fear of change and grating anomalies.

The problems started in 1945 with the Labour government's Town and Country Planning Act. Its guidelines enshrined a turgid approach to heritage protection that tended to spark confusion, acrimony and excessive costs whenever applications for variations to listings were made.

The "protective" system still fails to stop inappropriate or physically damaging alterations to listed sites, and ruthless developers from preying on important buildings that have conveniently fallen into terminal disrepair.

The hassles on a smaller scale are just as infuriating. At Birmingham's listed minerals and metallurgy building, for example, the city council had to re-apply for listed building consent to remove a fume cupboard.

The pilot schemes are not quite a bolt from the blue. Various strategic reviews from the Government and English Heritage have paved the way for the heritage go-faster stripes for almost a decade.

More recently, a groundbreaking report, Streamlining Listed Building Consent, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, headed by John Prescott, further prepared the way for change.

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