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The history of heritage protection and the first listed buildings

The history of heritage protection, before listed buildings, starts in Victorian times. There were no listed buildings at that time, and the general public did not give much thought to historic buildings. They demolished them when they became out of fashion or no longer fit their purpose. William Morris laid the foundations for change. He fought to educate on the benefits of historic buildings. In 1877 Morris formed The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) to promote a conservation philosophy that we still use nowadays. 

The appreciation of heritage was developing in England. As a response, in 1882, the government ordered ‘The List’. This was the beginning of the protection of our heritage. Additionally, in 1908 the king appointed the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments (RCHM has been rebranded as Historic Buildings & Places). However, it protected mainly prehistoric structures. The general public was still unaware of the possibilities offered by old buildings.

Roman Baths in city of Bath was not discovered until a building in place was demolished in 1755 it was not a listed building then
In the City of Bath, the Roman baths were only discovered in 1755, following the demolition of a building that sat on top.

Awarenes of heritage protection in the 1930s and 1940s

The first heritage protection in 1932, the Town and Country Planning Act starts to change things. This law offered local authorities the first tools to protect historic buildings. However, a construction boom following the depression of the 1930s was changing London at a fast pace. In 1937 a group of journalists formed The Georgian group. They intended to stop the extended destruction of Georgian buildings. The Blitz and reconstruction fever risked the loss of significant buildings forever. Finally, in 1940 the government ordered the National Building Record, the first national survey to identify listed buildings and buildings of special interest. This survey confirmed the need to save specific structures from demolition. So the 1944 Act Town and Country Plan gave ministers the power to protect certain buildings.

Georgian entrance in bloomsbury heritage in this area was affected during the 20s and 30s as they were not listed buildings

More than just listed buildings in the 1960s

The 1960s saw a change in heritage awareness at a local and international level. After the Second World War, there was an urge to renew and modernise. This attitude promoted a distaste for anything related to the past. However, once again, forerunners could see beyond the established fashion. The virtual line between ordinary buildings and historic buildings kept moving as time passed. In 1958 a group of friends created The Victorian Society to highlight the contribution of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century architecture. Above all, the Euston Arch campaign is one of its first. This campaign reached the public consciousness laying the groundwork for further protection.

Following the 1962 Act of Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments, local authorities could fund the repair of not listed buildings. And the 1968 Act Town and Country Plan introduced the first statutory protection of listed buildings. The government also ordered another national survey with new criteria. As the virtual line continued to move, the authorities proposed the first buildings of the modern movement for protection. 

Queens Anne style listed building Bedford Park heritage saved from demolition in the 1960s thanks to the creation of a trust

Accidental heritage protection in the 1970s

The oil crisis of the 1970s and 1980s consolidated previous views on heritage protection and listed buildings. In other words, the past was no longer an obstacle to the future. Instead, it was part of the process to reach the future. Heritage would become a sign of character and even luxury, for instance, in the typical NY warehouse apartment. 

In the 1970s, two events from the are of particular relevance— the campaign of the Covent Garden Community to save the market and a V&A exhibition. The Covent Garden campaign shows the public sensitivity towards those historic buildings of their day to day life and their eagerness to keep them as a community asset. The exhibition at the V&A titled ’The destruction of the English Country House’ made the public aware of the need for action on wider national heritage, which was quietly disappearing. The impact of this exhibition translated into the creation of the charity Save Britain’s Heritage, which continues to carry the torch today for the preservation of our heritage by campaigning for the listing of buildings.

View of Book for V&A exhibition in shopping window the origin of SAVE Britain's Heritage A piece in the history of the protection of heritage

More tools for heritage protection in the 1980s and 90s

From the 1980s, we can highlight the creation of organisations related to promoting listed buildings and heritage protection in general. The Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) and English Heritage (now known as Historic England), now key conservation figures, start at that time. 

A significant milestone was removing the year 1939 as a limit to listing historic buildings. Instead, Historic England drew a virtual line using the 30-year rule. This allowed for the listing of post-war buildings for the first time. After the pressure of the emerging heritage bodies and raising public awareness, legislation followed. During the 1990s, the government published a series of documents to protect the best examples of our historic built environment. These are still relevant today:

How do we define listed buildings nowadays?

Historic England recognises specific historic buildings as ‘exceptional architectural or historic interest’. Nowadays, listed buildings can be graded at three levels, from the higher ‘exceptional interest’ of Grade I to Grade II* and the lower ‘special interest’ for Grade II. Consequently, listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas require special treatment in the planning process. 

Depending on the case, a different document might be necessary to achieve planning permission – from a listed building consent to a heritage statement or heritage impact assessment. That means you must know if you live in a conservation area or if the building you want to extend is listed. That means you must see if you live in a conservation area or if the building you want to develop is listed. A heritage consultant or an architect specialising in historic buildings could help you.

Barbican in London grade II listed building built in 1980s listed 30 years later