Darren Price responds to article on whether Grade III listing could halt demolition

November 22, 2022

Could a Grade III listing for buildings halt the UK’s tide of demolition?

Darren Price responds to this article in the AJ by Will Arnold:

There is a lot of good sense here.  Will Arnold's proposal for new Grade III listed status, a positive move away from demolition, and consideration for retrofit and re-use of old buildings first are all ways we can diminish the building sector’s overbearing carbon footprint.  As Will points out there is much that is ‘exciting’ for our profession in this and in the challenge of regenerative design - and it's not no to new build, just that what we design and build going forward needs to be better, more sustainable, and not ‘single use.’ I would certainly support the concept of further protection through a new designation such as Grade III, and I’m sure many others in the profession would do likewise.

The government should refresh the Town and Country Planning Act and introduce a Grade III status to protect millions of buildings from needless demolition, writes Will Arnold

Seventy-five years ago, in the post-war period of rebuilding, the UK started to ‘list’ and protect buildings deemed to be of particular architectural significance. When put before Parliament in 1947, the proposing minister said: ‘When this Bill becomes law, we shall have created an instrument of which we can be justly proud; we shall have begun a new era in the life of this country, an era in which human happiness, beauty, and culture will play a greater part in its social and economic life than they have ever done before.’

Since the Act’s introduction, about half a million buildings have become listed at either Grade II, Grade II* or Grade I status across the country. Restrictions vary by grading but, among other things, all grades mean that the building may not be demolished without special permission from the local planning authority.

And yet, despite well-supported campaigns like RetroFirst and Part Z, there are no equivalent laws in the UK that protect the other 25 million UK buildings from needless demolition and we lose around 50,000 buildings a year because of this.

Now that concern for the environment is front and centre alongside the aforementioned social and economic considerations, it is time to refresh the Town and Country Planning Act and introduce a Grade III status.  The status would apply automatically to every building and it would come with just one rule: the property may only be demolished if it is structurally unsafe, or is given special dispensation by the local planning authority.

To avoid overburdening SMEs, its initial introduction may only apply to major properties (for example those with a net internal area of more than 1,000m2) and would still allow us to alter layouts, strengthen foundations, add new floors and upgrade façades. Such alterations are of course vital if we want to keep doing the most social good for our country. But the restriction on demolition would at last enable us to make rapid inroads towards slashing construction’s huge carbon footprint.

With the introduction of Grade III, development across the UK would change overnight. Re-using what exists already would become the norm. It would suspend the debate around whether to lower taxes on refurbishments, the need to campaign to try and raise awareness of the environmental costs of demolition, and the expensive and public court cases picking apart the competency of those professionals working in sustainability. It would allow built environment professionals to get on with the most important task in hand – repairing the health of society and the environment.

Some will accuse me of being part of the anti-growth coalition for proposing this, but Grade III won’t stop the construction industry. After all, we will still need to pay for construction, and we will still want to redevelop areas to increase the quality of our housing stock, our cities, and our green spaces.  But, as the UK accelerates away from the current model of single-use disposable buildings and towards one of longevity and stewardship, we will create a wealth of greener jobs, greener technology and greener design norms. All of which will be exportable, and all of which will reduce our reliance on imported materials.

I also think that such an approach is better aligned with what the public want. Regenerative design principles call on us to co-create with those who will occupy and interact with our projects. When you last spoke with the locals living adjacent to your project site, how did they feel about the related traffic, noise and pollution? I’d wager they probably weren’t a fan.

Conversely if you offered to regenerate the area around them without tearing down what already existed – upgrading their buildings, properly integrating nature, and adding resilience against overheating and flooding – I think that the majority would be in favour.

And this is because there is something exciting about regeneration and refurbishment. Upcycling by talented architects and engineers can be almost magical. At this year’s IStructE Structural Awards, five out of the 10 award-winners were re-use projects. This included HYLO in Islington, where Horden Cherry Lee and AKT II added a whopping 13 storeys to the top of an existing 16-storey building, and London South Bank University’s LSBU Hub, where a run-down and tired 1970s concrete frame was utterly transformed by WilkinsonEyre and Eckersley O’Callaghan into a space that is airy, modern and attractive. I bet that most visitors to both have no idea that these are retrofits.

Grade III listings would make these sorts of intervention the norm, and our world would be all the better for it. We would have a Town and Country Planning Act relevant to the biggest concerns facing society today, and would revolutionise our industry in the process.

Will Arnold is head of climate action at The Institution of Structural Engineers