Problem owners, not problem buildings
The case of two listed, former school buildings in a former colliery village in north-east Derbyshire illustrates some of the lessons of using urgent works and repairs notices.
The Queen-Anne-style former Cresswell Church of England secondary school
Conservation officers should all know by now how to take action on buildings at risk, and what is involved. It is all there in the Listed Buildings Act 1990, in PPG15, in the English Heritage guidance, in Charles Mynors’ book on listed building legislation, and in Bob Kindred’s excellent survey of local authority work on this topic, compiled in 1992 but which is still very relevant today.
Urgent works action under s54 and 55 is easy, with a little technical knowledge and help, an awareness of the need for temporary works and reasonable measures, all done in the knowledge that if you act reasonably you will get your money back. You may not have to do the works if the threat of interference with his private property stirs the owner into action.
Preparing a s48 full repairs notice needs rather more technical knowledge, along with preparation for legal action towards a compulsory purchase order. But if the urgent works notice has given the building adequate temporary protection and the owner has been moved to act appropriately, the need for the CPO action should be minimised, or at least time is bought for the next stage to be properly planned.
Two listed, former school buildings sit side by side in the once thriving colliery village of Creswell, between Bolsover and Worksop, in north-east Derbyshire. Built a few years either side of 1900 to cater for the children of this rapidly expanding settlement, they closed in the late 1970s. They were then used for a series of low-intensity and low-income commercial and industrial uses before gradually slipping into a state of complete vacancy and neglect.
The infants school, owned by Mr A, attracted its
first urgent works notice in 1985, and between 1993 and 2002 attracted another six notices from Bolsover District Council. The secondary school, owned by Mr B, attracted three urgent works notices between 1993 and 2003. Continuing vandalism was a major contributor to the need to serve repeated notices. More effective security measures at the outset would have gone a long way to avoiding repetitive and abortive work.
All the notices concentrated on keeping out intruders and the weather, ventilating the building and avoiding any structural collapse. The greatest damage was done by repeated attacks by vandals getting inside the buildings, climbing out on to the roofs via the hidden central valley gutters, pushing off the heavy stone ridge pieces and kicking out slates, as well as smashing glass and whole window frames. The temporary works would have been more than adequate to protect the buildings against further decay, but not against determined vandals.
With hindsight the most beneficial and cost effective measure the owners could have taken would have been to surround the buildings with high security fences and gates which would have kept out the vandals and allowed the temporary works to remain effective. But the council could not do such work as a costly and effective permanent fence would not have been in the spirit of s54.
Windows and doors were blocked up externally with plywood sheets bolted through to braces on the inside. Large areas of missing slates and leadwork were replaced with battened-down plastic sheeting, a chimney stack in danger of collapse was partially dismantled, and on
Temporary steel propping to the porch of the secondary school
£1.4 million for the model village. The owners of both schools were kept fully informed of the availability of the HLf grants and of all the council’s considerations and resolutions.
Even this grant aid was not enough to encourage the owners to take positive action. Throughout the negotiations the council sought valuation advice from the district valuer. In the early days the district valuer’s values were quite generous to the owners but in early 2005, as the parties headed towards a public inquiry into the CPO, his values dropped to £1 for each school.
failing to instil some realism in the owners’ minds on valuations, the council served a s48 repairs notice in respect of the infants school in 2001 and in respect of the secondary school in 2003. Not content with one millstone around his neck, the infants school’s owner Mr A suddenly acquired the secondary school from Mr B in 2002, and soon after became subject to the second repairs notice as well.
The two s48 notices covered full and permanent repair of all external elements of the two buildings. While the law and the guidance do not require a full specification to a standard suitable for tendering by builders, it helps if the schedule of works is prepared by a conservation architect or surveyor. They can with authority defend the contents of the schedule in the magistrates court if the owner appeals and can also defend them in a public enquiry.
The objective of a repairs notice is to specify reasonable steps for the proper preservation of the building. Proper preservation is not defined anywhere but guidance can be found in PPg15 and in the English Heritage publication Stopping the Rot. What are reasonable steps has to be a matter of judgement.
The schedules for these two buildings each ran to seven pages and nearly 60 clauses. I went as far as to specify complete internal replastering, replication of significant internal joinery of which evidence survives, the installation of basic electrical power and lighting circuits, and temporary protection for the repaired windows.
Stopping the Rot states that ‘proper preservation implies positive action to put and to keep a listed building in good repair in a way which fully respects its architectural or historic interest and to prevent it being exposed to harm. This normally involves undertaking regular repairs and routine maintenance. It may be achieved of course, by bringing or keeping a useable building in full beneficial use.’
I took the view that in the economic circumstances of these particular buildings no low-key use (such as industrial storage) which might operate without plaster on the walls could possibly ensure the proper preservation of these buildings. Similarly it is unthinkable that long-term proper preservation through an economically viable new use could be achieved without the provision of electrical services.
Case law has established that repairs notices can require works to bring a building back only to the state
one occasion steel props were inserted to support a seriously defective masonry structure.
In four cases on the infants school the owner carried out the works himself after some dispute over materials to be used and despite his considerable reluctance to do it. In three cases on the infants school s55 notices were served to recover sums of £3,000, £8,500 and £2,500. In the first of these four works, carried out in 1997, the council did not get competitive estimates and chose to use its direct labour organisation. The inquiry inspector found the works to be necessary but allowed the council to recover only a third of the costs.
On the secondary school, in two instances the owner had the works carried out, but in the third case the council had to do the works at a cost of £13,000. This was recovered following an appeal, although it took two and a half years to do so.
Over this period of about 12 years the council’s action carried out under s54 and 55 was accompanied by a continuous exchange of letters with the owners and occasionally their solicitors, trying to persuade them to act reasonably, either by coming forward with schemes to develop the buildings themselves, or to sell them on to someone who would, for realistic prices which reflected the costs of repair.
In 1999 there was hope of ending this cycle of temporary works, vandalism and continuing dereliction. A successful bid by the district council to the Heritage Lottery fund for a townscape heritage initiative for the colliery model village included funds for the rescue of the two former schools. £500,000 was allocated as grant aid for appropriate schemes to regenerate the schools, out of a total first phase offer from the HLf of
it was in at that date. finding a few external photos of the buildings around the dates of listing (1978 and 1988) was difficult enough, but as no interior photos existed I was sticking my neck out by including internal works.
I did at least have a series of photos of the interiors of both buildings showing the deterioration over the last 10 years or so. This became crucial in the magistrates court.
In 2004 the council resolved to compulsory purchase both school buildings to secure their long-term preservation. The council also continued to attempt to acquire them by treaty with the help of the district valuer as an independent broker.
The council also continued to prepare its case for the public inquiry. Not unexpectedly, Mr A appealed to the Chesterfield Magistrates Court for a stay of the CPO proceedings. The hearing took place before a circuit judge, instead of lay magistrates, in february 2005. The case could easily have gone against the council had lay magistrates taken the view that the plausible building owner was being hounded oppressively by the council into giving up his property for a song.
The debate in the court between the barristers should have been about whether or not the owner had taken steps properly to preserve the buildings and, if so, whether the steps were reasonably necessary. The owner’s barrister had requested two full days in the court so as to go through the schedules line by line.
It became clear that the owner did not have a leg to stand on in respect of taking any steps to preserve the building properly. We presented dated photos showing that he had presided over continuing decay of the buildings in the belief that doing the specified temporary works, when he chose to, and making vain attempts to sell the buildings for exorbitant sums, constituted reasonable steps properly to preserve the buildings. His case collapsed totally. The judge ruled that the steps in the notices were broadly reasonable and that no reasonable steps had been taken to properly preserve the buildings. He dismissed the appeal.
The owner was given until the end of May 2005 to agree to transfer the schools to the council voluntarily if the inquiry was to be called off and if the council’s offer to pay some of the owner’s legal fees was to be honoured. Agreement was reached on 27 May and the schools changed hands on 13 June. The council,
The neo-Jacobean former Cresswell Church of England infants school
as new owner, immediately erected a security fence around the schools, carried out essential temporary repairs, and embarked on a marketing exercise to attract developers for the schools and an adjacent land-locked site acquired at the same time. At the time of going to press the council was considering nine expressions of interest and preparing to seek serious bids from a short list.
Several lessons can be learned from this case:
1. The number of notices needed was a direct result of repeated vandalism. An effective security fence might have avoided so much damage and abortive work, and might have cost no more.
2. Urgent temporary works can be relatively inexpensive, but without seeking competitive estimates a council is open to a charge of unreasonable expenditure if the owner appeals. It may be a liability worth risking for the sake of expediency.
3. The items in an urgent works notice should keep out intruders; keep out the weather; keep the building ventilated; and prevent structural collapse. These can only be temporary works.
4. Do not delay if works are genuinely urgent. Delay suggests that the works are not urgent and may weaken your case in a court or public inquiry.
5.  Always keep communicating with the building owner, by recorded delivery letters if necessary. Never let him complain that he did not know what the council was about to do to him or his building, or that he had no reasonable opportunity to act voluntarily.
6.  Independent property valuations are critical to the council’s case for negotiations and for proving the real worth of a derelict listed building. Use the district valuer, or at least an independent private estate agent, from an early stage. The more he is involved in the process, the more likely he is to support a low valuation at the end of the day.
7. Yo u may not have good photographic evidence for the state of the building at the date of listing, but you must at least take periodic, dated photos as the building deteriorates, showing that reasonable steps have not been taken.
It is unlikely that a debate about the adequacy or excessiveness of the repairs notice schedules in the courts or public inquiry will make or break the case. It is more likely to hinge on the evidence that reasonable steps have not been taken properly to preserve the buildings.
The rear of the secondary school: beneath the bay’s boarding is a continuous series of sash windows.
Allan Morrison is principal historic buildings officer in Derbyshire County Council’s conservation and design team.
CONTEX T 93 : MAR C H 20 06