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Listing's lack of clout makes management agreements a must

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Two of this week's letters express concerns about the effects of piecemeal alterations on the integrity of listed buildings. Both instances show that, even in the minority of listed buildings cases where English Heritage is involved, successful custodianship is by no means guaranteed. In the case of the Barbican, EH's recommendation that the building be given Grade II*-listed status was overturned by Baroness Blackstone, who decreed that it only deserved to be listed as Grade II. Various undesirable alterations to the complex have been tolerated as a result.Walter Gropius' Impington Village College commands EH's full attention.

But even so, there is some doubt as to whether it is being looked after with the care that it deserves. EH's decision to allocate funding for new radiators, but not enough to replace the original underfloor heating system, constitutes an explicit and debatable decision that Gropius'original services strategy was incidental to the integrity of his work.

Both cases highlight the significance of management agreements, currently being tested and championed by EH and the ODPM. These written 'understandings'between the owners and managers of listed buildings, the local planning authority and (usually) English Heritage, seek to define what constitutes a building's special significance and to encourage an 'active management regime'by predicting likely alterations and establishing parameters for allowable change. Ideally, the agreement would be drawn up at the time of listing, utilising the extensive expert analysis on which such decisions are based.

The drawbacks of such agreements - they are timeconsuming, demand expertise that is in short supply, and carry no statutory power - are outweighed by the benefits of promoting dialogue and mutual understanding between a building's users and the statutory authorities.

Even more importantly, they separate academic architectural assessment from the pragmatic decisionmaking that may later ensue. EH's stance over Gropius' underfloor heating may, in fact, be tenable - or could have been had it been articulated before the system was in need of repair. But the integrity of the decision-making is compromised by the fact that it is entwined with difficult decisions about the allocation of limited funds.

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