We have a wonderfully diverse range of buildings in the UK and an equally diverse built environment which has responded to many years of change, development and progress. We clearly need to embrace change however our unique heritage in the UK would be quickly lost if all of our important and historic buildings were to be demolished and replaced with new modern buildings. It is for this reason that selected buildings in the UK are given statutory protection, which makes it a criminal offence to alter, develop or demolish, depending on the protected status of the building (discussed below), without permission. You will often hear protected buildings referred to as ‘listed buildings’.
Listed buildings were first introduced during World War II as a means of deciding which buildings should be rebuilt if they were damaged by bombing. Not long after World War II had ended the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 resulted in the compilation of the first list of buildings of special historical or architectural importance. Since then more and more buildings, monuments, site, landscapes and other miscellaneous items have been added to the list in order to preserve our heritage. Currently, listed buildings are designated by the English Heritage will assess a building’s suitability for protected status and will then make a recommendation to the
If a building is designated for statutory protection (Listing), then it will be allocated into one of the following categories:
Categories of listed buildings (Source: English Heritage)
- Grade I buildings are of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important; only 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I
- Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest; 5.5% of listed buildings are Grade II*
- Grade II buildings are nationally important and of special interest; 92% of all listed buildings are in this class and it is the most likely grade of listing for a home owner.
The selection process for protected status is much wider than you would imagine. When I ask my students ‘what is a listed building?’, the usual first reaction is an ‘old historic building’ where they usually provide examples such as Tudor timber framed buildings with thatched roofs or medieval castles. Whereas, these examples given are not bad ones, the scope and selection of listed buildings is much wider than age and appearance. The older a building is and its rarity will be a strong influencing factor in respect of whether it will receive protected status in addition to its appearance, both in terms of its architectural merit and whether the building is part of a collection of similar buildings. Architectural merit will not always relate to ‘older’ buildings as there are examples of many more ‘modern’ buildings that have been listed as a result of their unique structure and form.
A good example is the signal box at Birmingham New Street Station (see image). Many people are surprised to when they find out that the signal box is listed and therefore protected, as it does not follow the conventional perception of what people think a listed building should be. An article in the Birmingham Post on-line (Link) describes the unique features of the signal box; ‘Designed by Bicknell & Hamilton and W.R. Healey and completed in 1965, the unapologetically bunker-like structure is an honest expression of its utilitarian function. Standing five storeys high above track level, the building gives no clue of the hive of activity that exists within its four walls. The technology inside is of the same era as the exterior façade and was revolutionary for its time. The Relay Room sits just above street level and houses enormous banks of algorithmic electronic relays, known as Wespacs, which are programmed to calculate legal routes for the trains to take.’A building may be also listed because it represents a particular historical type. A good example of this is the prefabricated houses that were erected in the 1940’s as a means of providing housing quickly for those affected by bombing during the war. I have previously written an article on 1940’s prefabs which you may find of interest (Link). These houses were only designed to solve a short term problem, however as the majority have now been demolished the ones that remain provide a permanent insight (because they are now listed) into a unique form of simplistic construction, one that I have to admit I find fascinating. If we did not have the ability to protect these types of buildings then it is likely that they could have all disappeared without a trace, which would have been a real shame. Occasionally English Heritage will also select a building because the building has played a part in the life of a famous person, or as the scene of an important event.
In order to ensure that our heritage does not get lost in this modern World it is fundamentally important that we provide a level of protection that ensures that future generations can appreciate the built environment of their predecessors. Statutory protection and listed status allows this protection and whilst many may not approve of every building, structure or monument that is given this protection, it's importance cannot be understated.
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