Stopping the rot

Hundreds of historic buildings are standing empty and being allowed to decay. Prompt action by local people can not only prevent ultimate demolition, but also save thousands of pounds in repair costs.

A blocked rainwater gutter leads very quickly to damp penetrating the walls. If the building is closed up and not properly ventilated, the perfect conditions for dry rot are likely to arise as soon as the weather gets warm.

Owners of listed buildings are obliged to keep them in a reasonable state of repair. Local planning authorities, the Secretary of State and Historic England all have powers to serve Repairs Notices. These notices take two main forms:

1. A Section 54 Notice

This notice requires an owner to carry out urgent specified repairs; if they do not comply, then the council carries out the works and recovers the costs from the owner. Works are limited to the minimum necessary temporary repairs to make the building weathertight, safe from structural collapse and secure from theft and vandalism.

2. A Section 47/48 Notice

This Repairs Notice can lead to compulsory purchase of a property by the planning authority if repairs are not carried out. Works undertaken under a repairs notice are long-term repairs to put and keep a building in good repair.

For a long time, many local authorities were reluctant to use their repairs powers. They were afraid that the owners might respond, as they are entitled to do, by serving a purchase order on the council. The council would thereby be obliged to purchase the building and it repair it at the taxpayers expense.

Experience has shown that this virtually never happens. Usually an owner responds by placing the building on the market for the simple reason that most owners would rather sell to anyone but the local authority.

Very often a simple committee decision resolving to serve a Repairs Notice, or even resoling to consider serving a Repairs Notice, is enough to prompt the owner to sell.

It is important, none the less, to keep a careful watch on progress. Hard-worked planning officers may need encouragement to pursue the matter and find letters from concerned members of the public about neglected buildings a useful prompt to take the matter to their superiors or to their committee.

If the planning department is initially unwilling to consider Repairs Notices, then enlist the support of SAVE and other societies, as appropriate, and ask English Heritage to consider taking action. If the authority is concerned about the financial cost of taking enforcement action, remind them that Historic England now have grants available to local authorities, to underwrite the costs of preparing and enforcing urgent works notices.

A local authority that has no previous experience of serving Repairs Notices can be encouraged in two ways. First, you could find someone who is interested in taking the building on should it be sold or ultimately come to compulsory purchase. Second, you, perhaps aided by SAVE, English Heritage or one of the other societies, could provide examples of similar cases that have been successfully resolved.

Historic England produced an excellent guidance document on enforcement action called Stopping the Rot in 2011, which is still useful. Although it is aimed at local authority officers, it contains all you would need to know about the what's and how's of Urgent Works and Repairs Notices, as well as details of HE's grant programmes. If you get a copy you may know more about it than the planning officer!