Properties in conservation areas tend to be good-looking and in attractive neighbourhoods. As a result, they can command a premium price. There are, however, some disadvantages to living in one. These properties can have restrictions and related maintenance costs, but most people find that these are outweighed by the benefits.
What is a conservation area?
Section 69 of the Civic Amenities Act of 1967 gives local councils the power to designate as Conservation Areas ‘areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’. This can be for its buildings, history, architecture, layout or private spaces (eg gardens), parks and greens, trees or even street furniture. There are more than 8000 in the UK, and in practice, many of them cover residential areas. It may not be obvious that an area has been designated, or where the boundaries lie, although estate agents will usually include the fact if a property is in one. Your conveyancing solicitor should highlight restrictions when you purchase such a property.
It doesn’t end with designation
Once an area has been given conservation area status, the local authority develops and enforces policies as to how the desirable features of the area should be preserved or enhanced. Thus the policies will vary from one such area to another, and indeed can vary over time as new guidelines or restrictions are introduced (in consultation with local residents).
What does it mean for the homeowner?
If your home falls into a conservation area, there will be restrictions as to what you can do to it, as far as it affects the appearance of the outside of your property. These restrictions will be particular to your individual zone, which will have its own character. Because of the restrictions, any improvements, extensions or repairs you make are likely to take more time, involve more paperwork, and cost more money.
Generally you will find that you may not substantially alter the appearance of your home. Not only are you likely to face problems with planning extensions or other significant works, but relatively minor changes may also be disallowed. For example, if you were planning to convert the loft, it is possible you would not be allowed to insert Velux windows into any part of your roof visible from the street. (If you can see other such windows in the neighbourhood, they may well have been installed before the restrictions came into effect). The general idea is that any changes made should be ‘in keeping’ with the character of the area. If you commission a Buildings Survey, they will be able to inform you of necessary considerations should you wish to make any small changes.
Further, even essential repairs to the existing fabric of the house will have restrictions as to the design and the materials used. For example if you have to replace rotten window frames (even though you are not changing the size or position of the windows) you may find that you can’t use UPVC, or double glazing. Similarly, if your windows or front door originally had stained glass, you may have to keep it or replace it with an approved design, and if your boundary wall needs to be repaired, you will have to use bricks of the correct style.
Trees and gardens
Another generally applicable restriction in conservation areas concerns trees, which are usually given blanket protected status. This means that you may not remove any trees on your property without permission. Similarly, many conservation areas do not allow the conversion of front gardens to hard standing for cars.
It is not impossible to achieve exceptions to the rules. Obviously, a case can be made, for example, for the need to fell a particular tree, and the council will send a representative to assess whether permission should be granted.
Most of the guidelines are open to interpretation, especially since they often concern matters of taste. If you are planning something it pays to check in advance (guidelines should be available on council websites). It can help to use experts with local knowledge. Architects who have dealt with the specifics of your area and your council, and property lawyers may also help you to make your case, or to fight it should you wish to appeal a decision. The stakes can be high – it is not unknown for people to have to undo the work they have done, replace the new roof tiles or demolish the new porch – so the outlay for expertise could well save you time, money and aggravation in the end.
Preserving the appearance
Naturally, if you are attracted to a property in a conservation area, then you are unlikely to want to do anything which would be detrimental to the overall appearance of the neighbourhood. Far from feeling compromised by the guidelines, you may welcome them: after all, given nearby homeowners are subject to the same rules, the whole area maintains its special character, which benefits all.