Next month English Heritage will launch 30 pilot studies of potential candidates for management agreement frameworks, a new method of managing change in listed buildings.
Kenneth Powell discusses an approach that many see as the ideal solution for preserving the post-war built environment Little more than 15 years ago, the statutory listing of post-Second World War buildings was seen as a radical move - it was, after all, only after the demolition of the Firestone Factory in 1980 that significant numbers of inter-war buildings were listed. When English Heritage (still a relatively new body) put forward 70 candidates in 1988, nearly threequarters were turned down by the Thatcher government. Since then, however, up to 400 examples of post-war architecture have been steadily added to the lists. They include 'traditionalist' as well as Modernist work and range from small private houses to entire housing estates (Park Hill, Sheffield, and Newcastle's Byker Wall, for example) and a limited number of commercial buildings.
The election of New Labour in 1997 gave the conservation movement something of a fright. In the minds of Labour politicians, it seemed, conservation and conservatism were allied and 'heritage' was a dirty word.
Since then, there has been a marked tension between the government's pro-regeneration, pro-business stance and the imperative to protect the historic environment. English Heritage has fallen over itself to embrace New Labour thinking - its latest annual report was a model of political correctness.
But the tensions remain, with the property industry lobbying strongly against the further extension of listing into the commercial field, and continued concerns about the appropriateness of applying this mechanism to mass housing on the Park Hill model.
The development of management agreements, such as that now in force for the Grade II*-listed TUC Congress House (Building Study, pp28-35), is a practical response to these concerns. The concept originated in 1992, following the controversial listing (at Grade I) of Foster Associates' Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich.
While the issue that sparked off the listing (the infilling of the staff swimming pool) was resolved - the pool is still under a suspended floor - it remained unclear how listed building controls could square with the operational needs of a major company.
Would specific consent be needed to reconfigure office layouts or upgrade services? A three-way agreement between the building owners, the local authority and EH confirmed only major changes affecting the look of the building would require such consent.
Outstanding interest By 2001, 15 such agreements were in force.
Neave Brown's Alexandra Road housing estate in Camden (listed 1993) was the subject of one of them. The II* listing placed the estate in the category of 'outstanding' interest and implied EH would be consulted on all proposed alterations, external or internal.
But could EH 'police' 520 flats, ensuring that the residents sought consent, for example, to remodel their kitchens? Kevin Murphy, the EH inspector who has also been involved with the refurbishment of Congress House, was a key player in the development of an agreement for Alexandra Road. One idea that emerged, the designation of 'heritage flats' (that retain most of their original features), is also being pursued in the case of the Barbican in the City of London. These flats could merit a specific listing in their own right, it is argued.
Internal alterations Since the whole Barbican development was listed, the City and EH have been bombarded with applications for internal alterations (though flats retaining original features now command a premium, it seems). Even the Twentieth Century Society concedes that it is difficult to process so many applications, most of which are benign. Nobody, in effect, monitors internal work to most listed Georgian and Victorian houses, so is the imposition of controls on occupants of 20th century historic properties really justifiable?
A report drawn up last year by Paul Drury for EH and the ODPM progresses the idea of 'streamlining listed building consent' (in tune with the government's allegedly antibureaucratic stance), judging management agreements potentially 'an ideal approach to the positive management of listed buildings' based on 'constructive dialogue' and 'mutual understanding'.Works that do not affect the 'special interest' of a building should not require formal consent, Drury argues. (The issue of who decides which features possess this interest remains - local authorities have a conflict of interests where they are both owners and guardians of listed buildings. ) Next month, EH, with government backing, will announce the launch of a series of around 30 pilot studies of potential candidates for management agreement frameworks. These include London's Centre Point (where an agreement was drawn up in 1999 but not implemented because of the sale of the building), the Lasdun buildings, recently listed (to the reported annoyance of education ministers), at the University of East Anglia, and the Byker Wall.Also included is a group of listed stations on the eastern end of London Underground's Piccadilly Line:
safety and operational imperatives have long been seen as conflicting with the 'heritage' status of some of LUL's stations. University College London is seeking an agreement to manage its estate, a mix of listed buildings and much-later fabric, focusing on a congested central London site. According to EH's Roger Bowdler, 'there is no reason why the strategy of management agreements should not be extended to buildings and sites of any period, back to prehistory'. But, he admits, the listing of modern buildings, some of them not necessarily loved by the general public, some even perceived as disastrous failures, has created an urgent need to reassert the purpose of listing and also to ensure that it is in tune with social and commercial realities.
Detailed research EH is insistent that there is no prospect of management agreements being seen as a prerequisite of listing, which will continue to depend on architectural and historic merit, not practical viability. Nor will they be applied to the typical listed building for which the present arrangements work well.
All agreements will be based on detailed research and the development of an informed programme for protecting what matters: Avanti Architects is working on the proposed agreement for the Barbican's 2,100 flats. As the present government continues to review the broad issues of designating and protecting the historic environment, management agreements, properly applied, could be a way of heading off the argument that conservation stifles economic growth and social change - and ensuring that the listing system, which has generally served Britain well, is not derailed.