How to save a Building at Risk

How to save a Building at Risk

There is no single way to rescue a building at risk. The process can be time-consuming and complex but also extremely rewarding. Saving a building can involve purchasing the property and carrying out repair works, or campaigning for its restoration and reuse. The questions and answers below offer guidance for both approaches.

How to find out who owns the building?

SAVE is not normally in direct contact with owners. Conservation officers at local authorities may be able to put prospective rescuers in touch with the owner. Failing this, searches for the registered owner can be conducted online at the Land Registry for a nominal fee if the address is known. If the building is on unregistered land, more in-depth detective work may be needed to track down an owner including talking to neighbours, checking the electoral roll and other steps.  A useful government paper on this topic contains further suggestions and also explains the concepts of registered and unregistered land, see House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper Number 8567, 16 May 2019 “Tracing ownership of property or land” by Lorraine Conway.

How to work out the correct price of the building?

In order to understand the condition of the building, a survey is likely to be needed. This will enable more informed negotiations regarding the purchase or use.

The building should be sold at a price that accurately reflects its current condition. It is quite possible that the owner has an over optimistic view of the building’s worth. A survey can show if this is the case. It is important to ensure that your surveyor understands historic buildings and has experience of estimating either the end value or the cost of repairs.  The surveyor should also have up-to-date Professional Indemnity (PI) insurance. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors provides a list of building conservation specialists.

Sometimes buildings are bought for an inflated price on the assumption that planning permission and listed building consent for any new work will be granted. It is important to check with the local authority that your plans for the building are acceptable before you make the purchase.

What if the owner refuses to sell at a reasonable price?

In the case of a listed building, if the owner refuses to sell at a reasonable price the local authority might be persuaded to use its powers to take one of a number of enforcement steps including serving a Repairs Notice with the threat of a Compulsory Purchase Order if compliance is not forthcoming. For more information on Repairs Notices and other forms of enforcement action, see below. 

What if the building is owned by a local authority?

If the owner is a local authority, there are certain mechanisms to allow bids to be made for disused buildings to prompt their release onto the open market, known as the ‘community right to reclaim land’ (previously known as ‘Public Request to Order Disposal’ or PROD).   This gives the right to request, under powers contained in the Local Government and Land Act 1980, that under-used or unused land owned by local authorities and other public bodies is sold so that it can be brought back into use.

More generally applicable is the ‘community right to bid’, which was introduced by the Localism Act 2011.  This gives groups the ability to pause the marketing process of a building – whether owned by the local authority or a private individual or company - that has previously been listed as an asset of community value.  This allows a set amount of time for the group to prepare a bid and fundraise.  A local authority will maintain the list of assets of community value and will usually have information about how to nominate a building on its website.  

Where to seek advice?

Understanding what may or may not be done in terms of change of use and building works will be key to determining how a building can be rescued. This may differ according to whether the building is listed, in a conservation area or even locally listed. Many local authorities charge for this advice, although some initial advice may be available without charge and many local authorities have good information on their websites under planning and conservation.

Other organisations such as the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), as well as others such as the Listed Property Owners Club make certain advice available for free on their websites and have further information available to subscribers.  Historic England also have comprehensive information available under the” Advice” tab on their website.

How to fund the purchase and necessary work?

Very little funding is available for private individuals and there is only one mortgage provider of which we are aware, the Ecology Building Society, which may consider providing mortgage finance on derelict buildings.

However, there are a number of schemes which may be available through a range of organisations and the best source of information is the Heritage Funding Directory. The Architectural Heritage Fund also offers a comprehensive guide to funding for historic buildings.

Historic England offer some grant schemes but not all buildings are eligible. Grants are available for buildings that are listed grade I or II*, or are grade II and within a conservation area or London Borough, if it is a scheduled monument, or an unlisted building of significant historic or architectural interest and within a conservation area or a London Borough.   Priority is given to buildings on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk List. See Historic England’s publication (reissued May 2019), ‘Repair Grants for Heritage at Risk’, for more information. Similar grants are also offered by Cadw (visit their website for details).  

The local authority or conservation team may well also know of sources of funds for certain projects or elements of a project.

Are there any tax breaks to help to save a historic building?

For many years the conservation lobby has been fighting for reduced VAT rates on home repairs and maintenance.  At present the renovation and repair necessary to make an empty property habitable again incurs the full rate of tax at 20% (except in certain limited circumstances outlined below) acting as a disincentive to the rescue and reuse of existing buildings. It also represents a disincentive to repair and maintain historic buildings which could contribute to buildings becoming “at risk”.  Perversely, new build is zero-rated.

There are however certain situations in which reductions in VAT will apply.  A zero rate of VAT applies for work on residential properties empty for more than 10 years and on conversions of non-residential buildings to residential use regardless of the number of years they have been empty. These changes have made it cheaper and easier to rescue and repair buildings which have stood empty for some time or are being repurposed. 

The latest information on these reliefs should be checked on the VAT section (Building a new home and VAT) of HMRC’s website There may be other relevant tax reliefs in particular cases.

When is it helpful to create a purchasing entity?

If the building in question is not to be a personal project or business, it may helpful to create a charitable or not-for-profit entity such as a Building Preservation Trust to acquire a building and facilitate access to funding. The Heritage Trust Network is the umbrella organisation for Building Preservation Trusts and has further information on its website.

Which architect, builders and materials to use?

Choosing the right professional to carry out any work using the correct methods and materials is crucial and can save time and money.

The SPAB offers advice and can supply lists of firms. Visit their website for more information, or call 020 7456 0916 for technical enquiries (this line is open on weekdays between 9.30am-12.30pm).

The Building Conservation Directory provides a useful list of tradesmen and suppliers. This can be accessed on their website, or a hard copy of their annual directory from the publishers, Cathedral Communications Ltd. (tel: 01747 871717).

Conservation Officers will often also hold lists of local approved heritage builders and architects as well as guidance on appropriate techniques and materials for local buildings.

Royal Institute of British Architects maintains a Conservation Register. You can also refer to the Register of Architects accredited in Building Conservation.  As noted above, The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors provides a list of building conservation specialists.

How to save a building through campaign work?

Purchase of a building is not the only way to achieve a rescue. Campaigning for appropriate restoration and reuse can lead to interesting and beneficial partnerships between owners, prospective users of buildings and other interested parties such as local authorities wanting to support regeneration. Campaigning can also highlight the need for action by local authorities using the range of powers they have at their disposal to take emergency action to repair a building or halt its demise (see below and also SAVE’s guide to campaigning under “Help & Advice”).

Legislation Protecting Heritage

What is the role of local authorities?

Local authorities deal with planning applications. Most local authorities have a conservation officer who makes sure that historic buildings in the district or borough area are properly cared for. In some councils, however, this role is taken on by a planning officer.

The local authority’s conservation officer is a good person to contact if you are concerned about a building in your area, or you are looking for more information on a building at risk that you would like to purchase or repair.

If you are hoping to find out more about a building, it is worth considering if the building is listed or lies within a conservation area. The work that is planned for the building may require planning permission and/or listed building consent.

Is the building listed?

If a building is ‘listed’, it means it is included on the statutory list of ‘buildings of special architectural or historic interest’. Listing not only celebrates a building’s special interest, but it also provides it with some protection within the planning system.

In England and Wales, listed buildings are graded depending on their level of interest. Grade I buildings are categorised as being of ‘exceptional interest’; grade II* buildings are ‘particularly important buildings of more than special interest’; and grade II buildings are of ‘special interest’. Historic England maintains the statutory list in England, and Cadw does the same for Wales. It possible to find out if a property is listed by searching for it on the National Heritage List for England’s ‘Search the list’ option on their website, or by using Cadw’s ‘Search Cadw records’.

In Scotland, listed buildings are classified as either Category A, ‘outstanding examples of a particular period, style or type’; Category B, ‘major examples of a particular period, style or type’; or Category C, ‘representative examples of a particular period, style or type’. The Scottish list is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, and is searchable on their website.

Is the building within a conservation area?

The building at risk may be located in a conservation area, which is defined as ‘an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’. Conservation areas are designated by local authorities. They have some extra planning controls and considerations in place to protect the area’s special interest. There is often an interactive mapping service on a local authority’s website which can be used to work out if a building lies within a conservation area and there may be a conservation area appraisal which describes the history and character of the area.

What is Planning Permission?

Planning permission is not always needed. Generally speaking it is not required for changes to the inside of buildings, or for small alterations to the outside such as the installation of telephone connections and alarm boxes. Other small changes, for example putting up walls and fences below a certain height, have a general planning permission for which a specific application is not required.  Government guidance can be found on their website.

What is Listed Building Consent?

Controls apply to all works, both external and internal, that would affect the special interest of a listed building. Consent is required where work involves alterations that would affect the character of the listed building.

How can you find out what a building’s planning history is?

To find out if the building has had previous planning applications or listed building consents made in relation to it, you can search using the building’s address on the planning section of the local authority’s website.  This may give helpful information about what may or may not be permitted by the local authority and can be a useful way of finding out more about the building.

What laws do listed building owners have to comply with?

There is no law that requires owners of listed buildings to maintain their property in a good state of repair, although it is in their interest to do so. However, as a result of certain powers that local authorities have, they could find themselves subject to legal action to secure repair when it becomes evident that a building is being allowed to deteriorate.  These powers are summarized below.  A helpful guide to the use of these powers is Historic England’s publication “Stopping the Rot: a guide to enforcement action to save historic buildings” (2016, 3rd edn.).

Section 215 Notice

A Section 215 Notice can be served by a local authority in the case of land adversely affecting the amenity of a neighbourhood‘ .  It concerns itself with the proper maintenance of land or buildings and can be served against the owner or occupier of the site.  It is particularly effective in remedying minor issues of maintenance such as holes in a roof or smashed windows.  It is becoming a more popular way of dealing with buildings at risk, and has been successfully used in many cases.

What is an Urgent Works Notice?

Emergency repairs can be carried out by a local authority following an Urgent Works Notice. These repairs can only be used on vacant buildings or vacant parts of partially used buildings. The cost of these repairs can be recovered from the owners. An Urgent Works Notice is most likely to be served where there is an immediate danger to the building and may involve making it secure, putting a temporary covering on the roof or supporting it with scaffolding. These repairs should be enough to prevent the building from collapsing before its future is resolved.

What is a Repairs Notice?

If a listed building is not being adequately looked after, the local authority can serve a Repairs Notice. This notice specifies work which is necessary to ensure the preservation of the building. These repairs should bring the building back into the condition it was in when it was listed, but the notice cannot be used to reinstate details lost before then.

What is a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO)?

If two months have elapsed since the Repairs Notice was served and the owner has taken no steps towards ensuring the preservation of the buildings, compulsory purchase proceedings can begin. The owner of the building is forced to sell the building at a price agreed by the district surveyor.

In the majority of cases the threat of a Repairs Notice is enough to persuade an owner to either repair or sell the building. In some cases the local authority would be willing to serve a Repairs Notice, and if necessary a CPO, if it could identify a potential new owner with a viable use and the means and understanding to undertake sympathetic repairs. In such circumstances the local authority and the new user can enter into a legal back-to-back agreement whereby the building is immediately resold to the new user following the CPO. This prevents the local authority from being saddled with the liability of the unrestored building. This new owner can be a private individual, although you may be told otherwise.

A 2022 Government Guidance paper gives some further useful information on the above powers.  Click here to read the paper.

How to save a building: Maintenance

The best way to save a building is of course to prevent it from slipping into a poor condition in the first place.  When a building is empty, it may be more challenging both to monitor condition and to find the money to ensure that essential repairs are carried out. However, there are ways in which a building can be effectively mothballed by ensuring that the roof and other routes of potential water ingress are in good order and by securing the building against vandals and other intruders.