When you read the word “conservation”, what do you picture? For most people, I suspect it conjures imagery of green spaces — dense woodland, rolling hills, perhaps a stretch of marshes.
So if I told you the UK had designated thousands of parcels of land as “conservation areas” over the past 56 years, protected by special planning restrictions, you may imagine that this would be good news for the natural environment. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. British conservation areas tend to be concerned with preserving the appearance of old buildings at all costs, even substantial environmental ones.
British housing stock is among the oldest in the world and, by no coincidence, it also has the most poorly insulated homes in western Europe. Even in the teeth of an energy crisis, however, millions of British homeowners are prevented from installing energy efficiency measures due to arcane rules.
The legislation from 1990, containing the most recent description of a conservation area states that each local authority “shall from time to time determine which parts of their area are areas of special architectural or historic interest the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. Hardly the most clear-cut definition, yet the rules governing either side of that divide are night and day.
For most property owners, replacing draughty single-glazed windows with double glazing is simple. Consult a specialist, pick your new windows, have them installed. But if you live in one of the roughly 2.5mn properties inside UK conservation areas, you must apply for planning permission for the same procedure, and any alterations that are not “like for like in material and appearance” — tricky in buildings that are often well over 100 years old — may be rejected. It’s a similar story with other retrofits such as external wall insulation.
The result is a cloud of uncertainty which leaves conservation area homeowners and architects reluctant to roll the dice on energy-saving retrofits and frequently knocked back if they do. This comes at a dramatic cost both to the environment and the homeowners, according to a striking new study of energy use in 14mn English homes.
Planning restrictions in conservation areas are directly responsible for up to 3.2mn tonnes of excess domestic CO₂ emissions, according to Professor Thiemo Fetzer from the University of Warwick. He compared properties of similar ages, sizes, types and locations inside and outside the areas to isolate the differences in energy use and installed insulation.
These excess emissions equate to about 5 per cent of all emissions from heating homes in the UK, excluding heat for water or cooking. The energy efficiency gap between properties in conservation areas and their unregulated neighbours has only grown wider in the past decade as the pace of retrofitting has picked up across the rest of the country.
Such figures will be of little surprise to the owners of these properties, increasingly exasperated with what they perceive as ineffective, obstructive and even counterproductive rules. With 86 per cent saying they want to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, of those, nine in ten say the planning restrictions are a barrier to doing so, according to a new survey by Historic Houses and the Country Land and Business Association.
Even among those who knowingly bought heritage buildings and are committed to preserving them, only one in ten believes the current system works well. Half describe it as poor or very poor.
There are reasons for optimism — the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea recently eased restrictions on solar panels for listed buildings which benefit from the most protection within conservation areas. A London-based group of architects has also written detailed proposals for simplifying the rules that would remove much of the uncertainty.
But when 338 of the UK’s 409 local councils have declared a climate emergency, it is damning that so many of them continue to obstruct their residents’ own efforts to go green.
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