Commercial development of heritage assets: listed buildings and conservation areas

Heritage assets are increasingly valued and well restored heritage buildings are sought after as business or retail premises.  Property of this type is usually subject to statutory protection, which means developers have additional restrictions and requirements to navigate.  Specialist legal advice will guide you through the process and give you the best chance of a successful project.

‘Restoring and developing a heritage building means preserving its historic character while making it fit for a new use in the 21st century’ says Michael Compton, commercial property solicitor with Ingram Winter Green LLP in central London.  ‘The original building will not have been designed to meet our current expectations for access and facilities.  Add to that the statutory requirements attached to listed buildings and conservation areas and it is obvious that a project of this sort must be carefully planned.’

Listed buildings

Not all heritage buildings will be listed but it is vital to check the position as early as possible.  The purpose of listing is to protect and preserve buildings of special national or local importance.  If your building is listed, you should assume that you will need listed building consent for anything you want to do.  This is in addition to the usual planning permission required for development.  Even if you are carrying out only internal works that do not require planning permission, it is likely that you will still need listed building consent. 

If consent is granted, it will probably impose design requirements and specify materials that must be used. Some local planning authorities may have put in place local consent orders to reduce the number of listed building consents required, so ask your solicitor to check the position.

The penalties if you carry out works to a listed building without consent are significant.  You could be ordered to restore the building to its original state – in extreme cases, developers have been required to re-build listed buildings that have been unlawfully demolished.  You could also be prosecuted and face an unlimited fine and up to two years in prison.  Ignorance is not a defence, so you must make sure you get specialist advice.

Conservation areas

Whether or not your building is listed it may sit in a conservation area, the purpose of which is to protect the special character of the surrounding environment.  The normal planning rules apply differently to development in conservation areas.  Demolition of buildings or parts of them will probably need consent, even if the building is not listed. 

The planning system generally allows some types of work to be done without planning consent under ‘permitted development’ rights but these do not apply in conservation areas.  If you are developing a heritage building, you may want to install energy saving equipment such as solar panels and heat pumps and telecommunications apparatus.  These will usually require consent if the building is in a conservation area.  You should also bear in mind that there are additional restrictions on advertising and signage in conservation areas.  This can be important for a commercial development, so you need to make sure that you keep within the rules.  Trees in a conservation area also have the same protections as if they were subject to tree preservation orders, which means that you need permission for any lopping or felling.

Article 4 directions

A local planning authority may also place additional limits on permitted development in specific areas within its jurisdiction, by making an Article 4 direction.  The key point is that your chances of getting consent for the development you want to carry out will depend heavily on local as well as national planning and heritage conservation policies.  These are subject to regular review, so it is important to make sure you have up-to-date advice from a legal specialist.

Developing a heritage asset can be well worth the effort, but the extra permissions and restrictions on alterations and development can make restoration and development projects more complex and more costly.  Expert advice from the very beginning will help you find your way through the regulations and avoid costly mistakes.

For further information, please contact Michael Compton in the property team on 020 7845 7408 or email

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.