Support for listed buildings at risk

Baronial style Hartwood Hospital Church, Lanarkshire

This article gives a background to listed buildings along with current thinking on their future relevance.

It examines:

  • The importance of our national heritage
  • Where to find listed buildings for sale
  • The history of protection for listed buildings
  • Obligations on owners of buildings of historic interest
  • Opportunities for inspiring projects

Preserving our heritage

In acknowledgement of the important role that historic properties play in enriching our lives and environment, efforts to preserve buildings of exceptional interest have gained greater prominence over recent years. However, hundreds of listed buildings are currently at risk of being lost: one way of saving such vulnerable properties is to find a viable new use for them and connect with an owner keen to take on a restoration and revitalisation project. Several organisations exist which keep records of particularly important buildings and some campaign to secure a new future for them.

Where to find listed buildings for sale

SAVE Britain’s Heritage aims to repurpose threatened buildings of historic interest by bringing together architects, developers, planners and new owners to create schemes which offer them a new lease of life. The challenge of resolving how a possibly derelict structure can be reinvented as an imaginative place to live or work in has been made easier thanks to modern building methods, which can now overcome what were once considered insurmountable problems.

Helpfully chiming with current thinking, building conservation is regarded as being environmentally sustainable when it uses existing resources to create a unique end product. SAVE Britain’s Heritage is an independent voice in conservation which has been campaigning for threatened British listed buildings since 1975. It publishes a Buildings at Risk Register which gives information to anyone looking to find, repair or reuse buildings of historic interest.

The register features properties of special architectural or historic interest which are vacant and facing an uncertain future: the aim is to find a new owner or custodian to secure this future. While only some of the buildings on the register may be formally for sale, owners of other buildings on the list may be open to offers and ideas.

The register contains over 1,300 buildings in England, Wales and Scotland; it has been compiled since 1989 and is periodically updated. New entries to the register appear in the Buildings at Risk Catalogue which is published annually: around 100 new buildings at risk are added each year and are then added to the online register. Nominations to the register come from conservation officers, members of the public, community groups, heritage organisations and professionals. As part of its work to help preserve vulnerable historic buildings, SAVE Britain’s Heritage also supports listing applications, opposes demolition plans and consults conservation officers.

National Heritage List

Listed buildings are also a priority for Historic England, which established its National Heritage List for England in 1882 when the first powers for protecting buildings were established; this is the only official up-to-date register of all nationally protected historic buildings in England. The listing procedure that we know today was introduced after World War II.

The National Heritage List has over 400,000 entries and includes all listed buildings, scheduled monuments, registered parks, landscapes, battlefields and protected wrecks. The List has recently been improved to include more details about the significance of each building and it is continually updated.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is another means of sourcing at-risk buildings for sale; it publishes a list which is available to members only. SPAB campaigns to give old buildings a future by running training schemes and courses for professionals such as architects and craftspeople, with the aim of encouraging new design to enrich the historic environment and make such buildings relevant and useable.

Listed terraced houses in Bath.

The history of protection for buildings of historic interest

State guardianship was first given to buildings at risk in the First Ancient Monuments Protection Act (1882); initially this identified 50 prehistoric monuments before other important sites were added along with measures to protect them, including fines for causing damage. More weight was added to the impetus for protecting our heritage by the Town & Country Planning Acts of 1944 and 1947 which enabled the listing of buildings of archaeological importance, and during World War II salvage lists were drawn up to assess whether a building which sustained bomb damage should be demolished or not.

The 1940s saw a system of criteria and grading of buildings introduced; the Ministry of Housing and Local Government carried out the first survey which produced 120,000 entries and contained basic information about a range of properties.

The listing was resurveyed in 1968 and focused on 39 historic cities and towns which appeared to be under threat from post-war development; the resurvey followed substantial redevelopment in the 1960s. In 1980 a national resurvey took place in two phases, one undertaken by 22 local planning authorities and the second by the private sector via contracts and architecture practices.

The listing process

In 1984, the newly established English Heritage engaged fieldworkers to carry out building assessments; these detailed a building’s type, date, architect, façade, interior and history. The range of buildings under scrutiny expanded to include lidos and milestones. In 1978, the 1939 date ceiling on listed buildings was removed and the 30-year rule was introduced which makes outstanding post-war buildings in England and Wales eligible for listing.

In 2005, Historic England, formerly English Heritage, became responsible for the listing process and details began to include a building’s history and reasons for its designation. Entries were made available to the public online in 2011 and all buildings of national importance are now available on one database.

From 2016, members of the public were invited to share their knowledge and pictures of buildings on the National Heritage List for England through the Enriching the List initiative, which enables errors to be reported and corrections made to update the information available. 

Obligations on owners of listed buildings

Owners of listed buildings have an obligation to keep them in reasonable repair and two Notices can be served by local planning authorities to ensure compliance with this. A Section 54 Notice requires the owner to carry out urgent repairs; if they refuse, the local authority can instruct the work and recover all costs from the owner. The work in question may be the minimum required to make a building safe, secure or watertight.

A local planning authority may also serve a Section 47/48 Notice which can lead to the compulsory purchase of a property by the local authority if repairs are not carried out. Such repairs may be required to improve a building over the long term and receipt of this Notice may in some cases prompt an owner to sell the property.

Opportunities for inspiring projects

Taking on a historic building obviously comes with a host of challenges, but with a combination of vision, passion, funding and a viable plan, amazing schemes can be created. Improvements in building methods mean that severely dilapidated buildings can now be saved and reinvented for future generations to enjoy. The work of conservation bodies has proved crucial in putting properties at risk into the spotlight, and informing interested parties about the opportunities that exist for those keen to play a part in conserving a piece of history.

The Engine House, Altrincham

Sited alongside the Bridgewater Canal, the Engine House and chimney base of the former Linotype Works in Altrincham were listed in July 2021, preventing a proposed demolition scheme. The property has great historic interest and its special architecture includes external decorations including terracotta detailing along with decorative internal wall tiles.

The site is owned by Morris Homes which applied to demolish and rebuild the Engine House as part of a scheme to redevelop the wider site, which is a designated conservation area. SAVE Britain’s Heritage submitted a listing application to Historic England and the Engine House has been granted Grade II listed status. To demolish the property, Morris Homes will have to apply for listed building consent.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage is not opposed to development of the property and would welcome its conversion into apartments. The Engine House and chimney base are some of the last remains of the Linotype Works, located in Broadheath Industrial Park, believed to be the first industrial park in the world and created by the 8th Earl of Stamford in 1885. The Linotype was a printing machine which could produce a complete line of metal type.

The Engine House and chimney base, Altrincham. Picture credit: Alamy.


Sandfield Tower, Queen’s Drive, Liverpool

Also known as Gwalia, this Grade II listed Victorian villa with a square tower stands in large grounds in an affluent area of Liverpool. It represents a major renovation project, having been neglected for 20 years and has no roof or floor, although vestiges of its former internal glory are still visible.

Built in 1851, for the second half of the 19th century it was home to wealthy merchants; in the 20th century it was acquired by a church which then sold the house and built a new structure on part of the site. According to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the building stands in a desirable part of the city and should be given a new lease of life.

The owners have failed to sell the property on several occasions and in 2020 the local council was considering taking action against the owners by requiring essential repairs to be carried out and possibly serving a Compulsory Purchase Order; however, a spending freeze has brought matters to a standstill. 

Sandfield Tower in its present condition. Picture by Jonathon Wild of Maelstrom
Sandfield Tower on the opening day of the Fourth Christ Scientist Church in 1931. Picture by Jonathon Wild of Maelstrom.

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