Leading Article: When common sense goes out of the window

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ACCORDING to English Heritage, which advises the Department of the Environment on conservation, there are 442,042 listed buildings in England, of which 418,533 are Grade II, the rest Grade I. These are rather large numbers, given an approximate total of 25 million buildings - and they may be an underestimate, since in the early days an entire terrace was sometimes listed as a single building. Of the total, between 60 and 80 per cent are domestic buildings.

One of those in the Grade II category is - as we report today - a putative 18th- century thatched cottage in the Somerset village of Whitelackington, belonging to Jack and Lucie Green. Even though the house was gutted by fire in 1935 and rebuilt without much regard for authenticity, the local council has taken exception to four new UPVC windows with which the elderly owners replaced four rotten front windows eight years ago.

Although it took two years for anyone from the council to notice what they had done, the Greens are being obliged to have the plastic ones replaced with officially approved lattice frames made from traditional materials. The council is lending them the cost of pounds 2,500, and has taken possession of the deeds of the house to ensure that it eventually gets its money back. The village is up in arms over what it considers the council's unduly zealous implementation of the law.

The case may seem to be of purely local interest, but it can stand as a symbol of the conflict between the demands of conservation and those of common sense and humanity. There is a marked tendency in this country to devote excessive attention to the preservation of old buildings and not enough to the quality of new ones.

Councils that insist on 'inauthentic' leaded windows being replaced with more of the same believe they are doing their bit to keep Britain beautiful. Yet they will not hesitate to refuse planning permission for a house skilfully designed by a good architect merely because, in their view, it is out of keeping with local styles - that is, their own taste; and they will happily give planning permission for a banal housing estate on the edge of a village, or an out-of-town supermarket which will kill local shops and generate much extra traffic.

It seems questionable whether the cottage at issue in Somerset deserved to be listed in the first place. Given the non- drastic nature of the alterations and the modest means of the owners, the council could have issued a warning, and then have obliged the next owner to make the necessary change: preferably, however, not back to the spurious Thirties replacement style, but to something genuinely in period. It might also warn local suppliers of plastic windows that they should know the law, and could in future be considered a party to an illegal act if they carry out such alterations.