Building Regulations v Planning Permission – The Silent Conflict!

The impact of planning policies and building regulations are a topic that will come up in studies, interview scenarios, competency testing and working life. We are delighted to introduce our new guest blog by Chartered Building Surveyor and Coventry University, Senior Lecturer – Gary O’Neill. Follow his blog to keep informed of current issues affecting our industry.


If we try to impose modern alterations and additions to all listed buildings then surely we are taking away the very thing that legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is trying to protect?  


In an age where we are already seeing the significant impact of climate change on our planet, there is a real urgency to find alternative ways of creating and saving energy in ways that will not only provide the capacity we need, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings has been a major focus of the UK Government over recent years who have primarily used Building Regulations Approved Document L as a vehicle for imposing change.  Recent revisions to Approved Document L have introduced much stricter criteria in respect of reducing thermal heat loss, improved air tightness, space heating controls, low energy fittings, to name but a few examples. Meeting these regulations in new buildings is achievable, as the requirements can form part of the design, however, this poses a whole new set of challenges for works to existing buildings and in particular those that are Listed (protected).

Over the years I have worked on numerous projects which were either Listed Buildings or those within Conservation Areas, or sometimes both.  Anyone who has been involved in such project will understand the often sensitive and sometimes complex issues that arise, particularly when there is a conflict of opinion between the Building Control Officer and the Planning/Conservation Officer.  It is important to understand that each of them have a very different agenda and it is hardly surprising that on occasions that their views will collide.  The Building Control Officer wants to ensure that the works are undertaken in a safe manner to comply with Building Regulations, whereas the Conservation Officer will be looking to maintain the appearance and characteristics of a Listed Building or within a Conservation Area.

I remember one project in particular where I was Project Manager for the refurbishment of a grade II listed Georgian Town House on the outskirts of Birmingham City Centre. After I had prepared and submitted  applications for Building Regulations and Listed Building Consent, there was a difference of opinion between the Building Control Officer and the Conservation Officer in respect of balustrade on a first floor landing.  The Conservation Officer wanted to maintain the existing detail, which was 800mm high and a gap of approximately 150mm between the spindles.  The Building Control Officer insisted that this did not comply with Approved Document K of Building Regulations (Minimum height of 900mm with a maximum 100mm gap between the spindles) and therefore needed to be replaced. The Conservation Officer insisted that this was an original feature of the building and therefore must not be removed!  After unsuccessfully trying to resolve this over numerous telephone conversations,  I arranged for both of them to meet me on site to discuss the matter.  I wondered whether they would bring their own boxing gloves, but either way I was looking forward to the meeting.  After much discussion a compromise was reached which meant that we would keep the existing balustrade detail, however we would also install a new balustrade in front of the existing to comply with Building Regulations.  This satisfied the Building Control Officer and the Conservation Officer who was happy to add this new feature as it was ‘reversible’ and in her words ‘did not detract from the original character of the building’.  The end result was necessary in order to obtain both statutory approvals, however it looked awful, and in my words, ‘made the landing look like a dog’s breakfast’!

The above scenario demonstrates the constant conflict between maintaining the character of a Listed Building or maybe within a Conservation Area and also achieving the various requirements of Building Regulations.  This is actually not that surprising when you think that the Conservation Officer and the Building Control Officer are trying to achieve completely different outcomes.  The problem however is that both of them could insist that their individual requirements are met, so if an impasse is reached, how is this resolved?  You would hope that commonsense would prevail, however sometimes it is difficult enough getting a response let alone contemplating a solution that would satisfy both!
Now, let us consider adding enhancements to a Listed Building and also trying to achieve the requirements of Building Regulations at the same time.  How is it possible to achieve both in every circumstance?  In fact should we really want to achieve both when you think that the majority of modern additions/enhancements to a Listed Building are likely to take away or affect it’s character. Think about insulating the walls of a listed building.  The chances are that you won’t be permitted to do this externally, because that would cover and hide the original structure and/or features of the building.  The same could also be said of insulating internally, if for example a dry lining system is proposed.  Therefore unless the Building Control Officer and the Conservation Officer are both open to compromise it is likely that the requirements of both statutory consents will be difficult to meet.
I would therefore suggest that if we are serious about preserving our heritage in the UK, then surely, we should not try to force significant alterations/enhancements when works are proposed to Listed Building and also those within Conservation Areas, even if that means there may be occasions when certain parts of Building Regulations may not be met.  When these buildings were originally constructed they would have been no consideration or requirement for them to meet any future standards, and in fact in most cases it is this lack of modern detail and requirements that often gives these buildings their unique charm and character.  If we try to impose modern alterations and additions to these buildings then surely we are taking away the very thing that legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is trying to protect?  I am not suggesting that all works to Listed Buildings or those within Conservation Areas should be exempt from Building Regulations approval; however, I am suggesting that we take a more pragmatic approach and in some circumstances accept these types of buildings for what they are, which are examples of our historic past.  If we try to impose too many ‘modern’ requirements onto these types of buildings then we what is the point in trying to protect them in the first place?

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