Character assassination

If you're planning to buy in a conservation area, you'd think the character of the house was assured. Think again, says Penny Jackson - busy local authorities can't always police the crimes that owners commit against their properties
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The Independent Online

Anyone keen on preserving the character of an area might assume that nothing untoward could happen in a conservation area. At the first sign of inappropriate changes, planning officers would surely swoop down on the offenders, point out the error of their ways and give them a good telling off.

Not so, according to the report published today by English Heritage, which has produced evidence to back up its concerns raised more than 10 years ago about the accumulative effect of minor changes to individual properties. This, they say, has led to the character of some areas being almost completely lost, leaving the conservation area designation potentially meaningless.

In Heritage Counts 2003, which assesses the state of England's historic environment, research into more than 1,000 buildings - conducted from the outside only - in four separate conservation areas has confirmed these fears. Using key building elements such as doors, windows, roofs, porches, wall materials and drainpipes, the survey shows that all the properties had experienced unsympathetic change.

The worst offender was the replacement window noted in 59 per cent of houses, followed by a hotch-potch of front doors in 54 per cent of the areas, with 37 per cent displaying a change in roof materials such as concrete instead of slate. If this is the state of affairs in conservation areas, one might well wonder about how bad the situation is elsewhere.

The main target in the conservationists' sights is the plastic window which, they argue, disfigures so much of our period housing stock, especially in areas of lower value. No matter how often or how loudly they make the case for retaining the original sash windows, on practical as well as aesthetic grounds, they are often no match for the aggressive marketing of the replacement window companies.

Paul Velluet, London assistant regional director with English Heritage, says that the value people place on an old house with its character intact can be the most persuasive factor. "There is a vast misconception about how vigorous is the control in conservation areas. Even if we were able to prevent changes of these kinds, there is simply not the manpower to enforce it. In the end it comes down to education - and we need to put across that message through estate agents, builders merchants and published guidance on design. Repairing the original or replacing it from the same material has to be seen as an asset."

In gentrifying, and gentrified areas, the impact of peer pressure clearly works. People are prepared to spend a great deal of money on replacing the original features unthinkingly ripped out years before, not simply because it pleases them, but because they see how it can transform an area and, naturally, house prices.

The English Heritage report points out that in one area, 95 per cent of all houses featured new windows. The message to anyone moving in to that street is loud and clear: it's okay to replace wood with plastic.

At Westminster Council, a spokesperson for the planning department points to Queen's Park Estate, north of the Harrow Road in West London, as a case deserving of attention. As one of the few such developments of artisan dwellings in London, it should be protected from the changes that have ruined its integrity, she believes. "These were working class cottages, stacked full of wonderful detail such as cast iron goat's head door knockers and slightly gothic- looking doors, many of which have disappeared over the years. If planning permission had been required for any changes to the facade, then we could have saved them. Public meetings show how strongly people feel about the distinctive nature of their areas and why they want to preserve it."

Winkworth, the estate agents, sell a number of properties in this area, many of them to first time buyers, or those who are attracted by the prospect of buying a cottage at around £265,000 to £300,000 with a small garden for little more than a one-bedroom flat in Ladbroke Grove. "It is not so much that the properties with their period features intact sell for a higher price, but that they attract many more buyers. Those that have had their windows and doors replaced or have lost their period character appeal to different people," says Winkworth's Anne Marie Ellis.

The sustainability argument is also one forcefully made by English Heritage, who point out that it is cheaper to maintain a Victorian terrace house than a house built in the 1980s, because of the quality and durability of the material used in older houses. Also, a house dating from before 1919 is worth, on average, some 20 per cent more than an equivalent house from a more recent era. This premium rises to 34 per cent for a 17th century house.

Few who live in a house from this period need any persuasion to preserve its historic features - and indeed in many areas there are self-regulating conservation groups who ensure that properties distinctive to their area remain unspoilt by producing guidelines to residents. But when it comes to checking transgressors, a report from English Heritage earlier this year highlights the problem. "Local authority conservation officers, whose responsibility is to protect and promote England's historic environment at a local level, are over-stretched, under-resourced and undervalued."