Systems for protecting our building heritage are experiencing an overhaul but it is still nowhere near enough, according to a Birmingham lawyer.
English Heritage recently published a new five-year strategy, which puts forward a rolling programme of initiatives including transforming the image of conservation, extending the Buildings at Risk register, campaigning to save historic churches and solutions to problems in rural areas.
In partnership with the Government, English Heritage is also working on the most radical reform of the legal framework for the protection and management of the historic environment which is designed to incorporate all of the different consent regimes into one new Heritage Consent.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport also recently issued a consultation paper seeking views on clarifying the general principles of selection for listing buildings.
Preserving our past is said to be a key issue, but unfortunately there is a limited money available to help carry out vital repairs to 17,000 at-risk buildings and what public money there is must be allocated according to strict criteria.
Martineau Johnson planning solicitor Lynne Franklin pointed to flagship projects such as the proposed refurbishment of Kenilworth Castle assisted by £2.5 million of public money, yet warned that English Heritage did not usually offer grants for projects costing less than £10,000 or for general maintenance or redecoration.
She said: "English Heritage and local authorities just don't seem to have sufficient funding from central government to help owners who care about the historic fabric but simply don't have the resources to stem the cycle of neglect.
"Over a 30-year period repair is said to be between 40 per cent and 60 per cent cheaper than replacement, but despite owners' best intentions property values won't stand the borrowing required to kick-start those repairs." She added: "Acting as we do for both local authorities and property owners, problems exist on both sides," said Ms Franklin. "I recently spoke at the inaugural conference run by SAVE Britain's Heritage and it was clear from our audience's response that nationally, many conservation officers, backed by lobbying groups, are trying hard to use the legal tools available to them to coerce owners into carrying out urgent repairs to listed buildings at risk."
Under the Listed Building Act 1990, local authorities can carry out urgent repairs and claim back the cost of doing so from the owner.
The problem is not just that owners are often absent or unknown but if they can be identified they are not in a financial position to do anything. Local authorities are reticent about using their statutory powers because of the fear that if notices are incorrectly drafted they will come unstuck on appeal to the Secretary of State and be unable to recoup their expenses.
Ms Franklin did not believe the proposed reform of the heritage system would protect old buildings.
She said: "Tidying up the current complex system of consents will certainly help speed up the procedures when applying for listed building consent to carry out works to listed buildings, although as with the current overhaul of the planning system, the devil will be in the detail.
"But, without more financial help, or better fiscal incentives, we are still left with the problem of maintaining and protecting the heritage stock which is in private hands."