Local councils in England are holding back owners of historic homes from adopting energy efficiency measures or renewables, leaving residents battling soaring energy bills and cold weather this winter.
Councils are coming under growing pressure from residents who want to better insulate their homes and make them cheaper to run but are blocked from doing so by rules designed to protect heritage.
Hundreds of thousands of significant historic buildings are “listed”, meaning owners require special permission to make any changes to the fabric of their homes.
So far just one council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has moved to loosen those restrictions. Earlier this year RBKC allowed solar panels to be added to any grade II-listed property in the borough except churches. It is now consulting on plans to allow owners of the roughly 4,000 listed buildings in the borough to install double-glazed windows without needing individual permission.
Cem Kemahli, RBKC lead councillor on planning and environment, said the council wanted to combine protection for the built heritage with action on energy and climate change. “It’s about making sure we can do the two. Buildings are not kept in aspic,” he said.
The UK’s housing stock is among the oldest in the world and poorly-insulated homes are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which the government has pledged to reduce to net zero by 2050.
Older properties tend to be leakier, but owners of listed homes must obtain special permission to make alterations — requiring them to navigate planning departments that have been cut drastically in recent years.
“There are some resourcing challenges for local governments . . . There’s an obvious caseload pressure on conservation officers,” said Victoria Thomson, head of national strategy at Historic England, the public body responsible for protecting listed buildings.
The English planning system, in which permissions are granted on a case-by-case basis, has advantages, “but without a definitive list of binding rules there can be scope for uncertainty”, she added.
Historic England, which is largely government funded and has a remit to preserve ancient monuments and historic buildings, has recently updated its guidance to owners of listed homes. But it does not free them from the requirement to gain specific permissions.
Where the body has expressed a view on whether alterations should generally be made easier, it has been conservative: while it was supportive of RBKC’s move to offer blanket permission for solar panels on listed homes in principle, it counselled against rapid or wide-ranging changes to the planning system.
The slow progress has left homeowners frustrated and vulnerable to soaring bills in the short term and potentially tougher energy performance regulations in the longer term.
Mark McCartney and his wife Mirjam Peternek-McCartney own a grade II-listed 17th century farmhouse in Warwickshire. Their district council, Stratford-on-Avon, has declared a climate emergency and set a target to reduce carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.
“But the reality is quite different when you want to actually make changes to a house in order to reduce emissions. For instance, we are going to install a heat pump and solar but far from being encouraged we are met by obstacle after obstacle,” he said.
The regulatory inertia has serious consequences: household energy usage accounts for 22 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions according to government data.
The country’s nearly-400,000 listed properties account for an outsize part of that.
To add double glazing, insulation or solar panels homeowners need to obtain listed building consent from their local council. Permission for small changes is granted in 92 per cent of cases, according to Historic England, but gaining it requires time, effort and money, with no guarantee of success.
“With listed buildings, you need the right kind of consent. That slows you down. It can take months to get permission. Across the country, that’s a problem,” said Alistair Watson, UK head of planning and environment at law firm Taylor Wessing.
The result is “relatively affluent [home] owners who are prepared to pay more not only to save energy costs but because it’s the right thing to do” are held back by the planning system, according to Cat Hoad, an interior designer focused on listed properties.
The national government has previously intervened to enable homeowners to alter their homes where there is a clear environmental goal. In 2015 it allowed owners of non-listed homes to attach solar panels to their roofs without specific permission.
But listed buildings require planning permission unless it is waived by local councils. According to the Local Government Authority, RBKC remains the only council to have simplified the approvals process.
Councillor David Renard, housing and environment spokesperson for the LGA, said councils recognised the importance of retrofitting old buildings but faced “challenges that arise from heritage buildings or older buildings with protected status”.
“To support councils’ net zero goals, there needs to be more widespread guidance across the UK about how to retrofit listed buildings,” he said.
The government’s levelling up and regeneration bill, currently making its way through parliament, could spur progress at the local level.
A recent Conservative amendment would require the government “to make regulations making it easier for owners of residential listed buildings to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings and, importantly, place requirements on Historic England to be supportive of such measures and efforts taken by residents”.
Richard Fuller, the MP who put forward the amendment, said it would bring relief for “a number of residents who live in listed buildings and are really concerned that restrictions stop them from insulating their homes or making other changes that might be needed to comply with future legislation”.
But even if the new clause makes its way in the bill, it is unlikely to be a silver bullet. Fuller’s amendment calls for “greater clarity, advice and support on how residential listed properties can improve their energy efficiency”, but “does not provide any detail on what this might look like and how it would work,” according to the LGA.