Who'd own a listed home?

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The Independent Online
An Englishman's home used to be his castle. Not any more. It is a grotesque example of the encroachment of the state on the liberty of the individual that nowadays you can be put in prison for doing anything to a building you own if it happens to be listed.

It is possible to wake up one morning and find a letter on the mat telling you that the baleful eye of English Heritage has fallen on your property and that from now on you'd better not think of painting the parlour without asking its permission. Legislation which was enacted to curb the excesses of municipal authorities from razing city centres has become the scourge of the property owner. Architects - no two of whom can ever agree on the merits of one building over another - battle it out at your expense. It is all a matter of opinion: there are no rules; you are entirely at the hands of the taste police.

That is why Stephen Dorrell's move to curb these powers and give the owner a say in the matter is to be welcomed. Until recent times all of our architecture was a series of additions and alterations. Under current legislation your building is wrapped in clingfilm destined to retain all the excrescences of the past but acquire none of the innovations of the present.

Unknown to the public, but at great expense, battles rage whenever an important national monument requires restoration. Hampton Court and Windsor Castle - damaged by fire - are fought over by opposing camps, the conservers versus the restorers.

As for private owners who innocently engage in building works without realising they are offending against listed building regulations, they are faced with the cost of a horrendous battle through the courts just to keep themselves out of prison.

English Heritage can hardly be blamed for seeking new fields of influence in contemporary architecture. Soon we will hear of whole terraces of council- house tat being listed. Who will want to buy their own home if they cannot change windows, nor the front door, nor put on a porch?

When Stephen Dorrell has finished reining in the powers of English Heritage, he must turn his mind to local councils outside London who are responsible for Grade II buildings. Here you are at the mercy of officers who lack even an architectural training but are free to wreak vengeance on a home- owner going about that most innocent of modern pastimes, a bit of DIY. Listed buildings should come with a health and wealth warning.

What does it matter if a few buildings are lost to avaricious developers - or if they have their wooden window frames replaced by plastic ones? The alternative is to watch as these buildings collapse under the arrogant gaze of our national watchdogs, who never, ever invest a penny of their own in preserving our heritage.

The writer is the Conservative MP for Billericay.