The Times – 22 February 1995

Returning an old house to its full glory can be fun, but it can all go sadly wrong.  Mary Wilson on how to get it right

Teresa Gorman, MP, has felt the hard edge of the law in relation to planning regulations as Thurrock council takes her and her husband to court for restoring their Grade II listed home. Whether she has made a good job or not of the work is not the point in question.  Their mistake was not to ask permission to do the restoration work in the first placer.

People thinking about buying listed properties are often wary of doing so because of the cost and rigorous stipulations that have to be followed in their upkeep. The more special the house is, the more the regulations have to be observed.

More than 440,000 buildings in Britain are listed, of which 6,069 are listed Grade I. They are buildings of exceptional interest.  Grade II* relates to important buildings of special interest and Grade II to other buildings of special interest.

The law states that it is a criminal offence to carry out work involving the demolition of a listed building or its alteration or extension in any manner that would affect its char­acter, as a building of special architectural or historic interest, including works to its interior, unless the works are authorised by listed Building Consent. The pen­alties are a fine of £2,000 or three months' jail or both.

Owners of Grade I and Grade II* listed property in doubt about what they can or cannot do can seek advice from the Environment De­partment or English Heritage. If the property is Grade II, they need only contact their local authority. Consent lasts for five years. It is also within a local authority's power to force an owner of a listed building to repair and preserve it.

On the plus side grants are available, although these are not that easy to obtain. There are some VAT concessions, but they often seem anomalous. If the work is an alteration, it is zero-rated; if it is a repair or maintenance, it is not. So adding a swimming pool attracts no VAT on the work, but repairing the roof does.

New owners could also contact the Historic Houses Association.  This is a group of 1,300 historic houseowners in Britain concerned with the preservation of privately owned historic house.  William Proby, its chairman, who owns Elton Hall in Peterborough, considers that many historic houseowners think that owning such a house is, rather than being a privilege, more like enduring a prison term.  The association is lobbying in Britain and through the European Union for a reduced rate of VAT for repairing and maintaining listed buildings.

“The great secret,” Mr Proby says, “is to try to get the local planning inspector on your side.  Yu do not want to get off on the confrontational start, although it might mean biting your lip.”  Once  a decision has been made, there is no right of appeal.  If the property is listed Grade II* or Grade I, you need both the local planning authority and the inspector from English Heritage on your side.

Mr Proby says, “I am very keen to encourage new owners.  If people are contemplating buying a listed house, they should contact us right at the outset for advice.  Once they are a member, we have a very experienced technical adviser and we run seminars on all sorts of maters pertaining to the restoration of listed houses.”

There are many stories of people finding conservation people less than helpful, but Jonathon and Zara Colchester, whose family have owned The New Place, Ickham, near Canterbury, Kent, since the First World War, were lucky.

The 15th century Grade II* listed manor house has been carefully restored.  Mr Colchester says: “The basic frame was fine, but we had to put in new services and plug a huge hole under one of the principal supports.  Luckily, our builders, WW Martin in Thanet, had supplies of old oak and old flagstones.  The house was crawling with conservation people, but they were happy because we were going by the book.  I built up a good relationship with them, but whether you end up with people who are sympathetic to what you want to do seems down to chance.”  He hopes to let or sell the five-bedroom house with 1.8acres through John D Woo, which has it on the market for £350,000.

Ron Warren, of Berkeley Homes, Kent, which is restoring the unusual and beautiful Clare House in East Maling, Kent, a Grade I listed Palladian house built in 1793, says, “We are working with English Heritage on the restoration and fine detailing.  We intend to restore the building in every detail.  Once English Heritage knew that we were involved, along with Wiltshier Construction, which specializes in this sort of thing, we had few problems.”

Wardour Castle in Tisbury, Wiltshire, is being restored by Nigel Tuersley, an ecologist.  The Grade I listed building was designed by James Paine and built in 1770.  “I first saw the building in November 1991 and fell instantly in love with it,” Mr Tuersley says.  “I have never had any problem with English Heritage.  We have seen eye to eye on everything.”

When one sees the quality of workmanship and materials Mr Tuersely has used it is not surprising that English Heritage is happy with what he is doing.  The new floors are made of English oak, and sawn in a special way so they have the same grain as the original. He has restored all the cornice work and has even matched the fruitwood door knobs. 

When Mr Tuersley bought Wardour Castle, he commissioned English Heritage to do extensive research on the building and he now has most of Paine's original plans and also the plans of the gardens, down to the purchase orders for the plants. "I have a simple, pure principle," he says, "to restore the fabric of the house to the true original state achieved by Paine."

He has turned the top floor into three huge flats, keeping the large door frames throughout and having 2½ inch thick doors made to fit them as they used to be. The flats are being let for £1,600 to £1,800 a month through John D. Wood's Hampshire lettings department.

Department of the Environment, Heritage Department, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 3EB: English Heritage, 23 Savile Row, London, W1X 2HE : Historic Houses Association, 2 Chester Street, London, SW1X 7BB.

Nigel Tuersley