Rachel Campbell, senior policy officer and head of regional policy at the British Property Federation (BPF), and Emily Gee, London planning director at Historic England, discuss the implications for historic buildings as the disposal of surplus public assets climbs the national agenda.
Q. What is driving demand for the disposal of surplus public assets?
Rachel Campbell: There are two main drivers. Firstly, constrained public resources mean local and central government are looking at how efficiently they use and get the best value from land and property assets. Part of this means examining whether particular assets are in fact surplus to their requirements.
The second driver, which ties into the first, is that the public sector recognises the need for new homes across the country and is looking to release land that can be developed for housing and mixed-use regeneration.
Central government has demonstrated its commitment to seeking best value from its assets through its Government Property Unit, part of the Cabinet Office, which has examined where different departments sit and, when appropriate, brought them together in new, fit-for-purpose civil service environments. The former, separate departmental properties then have an opportunity to better serve a different purpose. While this is a good example of the required strategic thinking, not all local authorities will have the resources available to the Cabinet Office and, therefore, peer-to-peer learning will be extremely important here.
Q. Are listed buildings a challenge to the successful delivery of this strategy?
Emily Gee: Listing introduces additional factors to consider, yes, but it also means that the site or building is a characterful and special one, and this should be a positive factor in shaping the future of a place. Many developers can demonstrate that a scheme based on the character of a site, and with historic listed buildings at the heart, can be a real draw for prospective users and purchasers, and help with engaging the local community.
These days, there are many tools to help with this process, including case studies where listed public buildings have shaped large-scale developments. We encourage early conversations, ideally pre-disposal, with our local teams or our new Infrastructure and Disposals Manager, to make sure the significance of a site is well understood. Historic England’s new Enhanced Advisory Services can help de-risk a site through assessments for potential listing as well as pre-application advice. Through this process, we can also assess and recommend revision of the extent of listing in a complex building or site, often liberating areas of less sensitivity and making it clear where the special interest lies.
Ms Campbell: There is no doubt that listed buildings in many cases require more time, attention and indeed money spent on them to bring them into modern use. We recognise that while we have lots of positive examples, there are sometimes concerns that the private sector will not sensitively maintain a historic building. In reality, the vast majority of developers do not see heritage aspects of a building as a burden to a regeneration project, but rather as a valuable asset to regeneration projects. When a historic building is given a new lease of life that respects its history, it can act as a catalyst to further development.
Q. What advice would you give to local authorities seeking to dispose of a historic building?
Ms Gee: Historic England has developed its guidance to support the public sector when disposing of heritage assets in ways that are in the best interest of both the assets and the places where they are located. The long-term future of the asset is key: there is no presumption that any ownership model is preferable to any other. What is important is a full understanding of the significance and requirements of an asset, and the contribution it makes to the local area.
Ms Campbell: It’s critical to engage with Historic England at an early stage. You also need to be open to new uses for the building, recognising that the original use may no longer be appropriate for the area’s current needs.
Developers require flexibility, so there will need to be some realism about what can be delivered from the disposed asset – but don’t be afraid to push for something innovative.
‘Heritage Works’, a toolkit for regeneration of heritage buildings will be relaunched by the BPF, Historic England and RICS in Manchester on 31 October 2017.