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Last edited 04 Jul 2017

Fitness for purpose in listing considerations

The introduction of ‘fitness for purpose’ into listing considerations blurs the very sensible divide between identifying what is significant, and broader economic and social factors.

It is a basic principle of our listed building legislation that the process of identifying what is significant should come first (the listing and scheduling processes), and that broader factors, such as the economic viability of keeping a building, or the wider social benefits of an alternative scheme, should only be considered later, when an application for listed building consent (and probably planning permission too) is developed.

This is both sensible and practical. Although consensus about what is significant does change over time (witness changing attitudes to Victorian buildings since the 1960s, and more recent growing appreciation of brutalism, and now postmodernism), on the whole these views shift only very slowly. And designation criteria can be defined and benchmarks set. Social and economic factors are much more volatile and, importantly, more complex and expensive to research and assess comprehensively. It makes sense that listing decisions should only take into account architectural and historic value, that listing should be seen as a way of signalling the need for a presumption in favour of conservation, rather than an absolute decree that a building must stay, regardless of broader circumstance.

The one blurring of this very sensible divide has been the introduction of ‘fitness for purpose’ into listing considerations, as discussed by Chris Miele in his article ‘Valuing fitness for purpose’ (Context 147, November 2016). Miele explains how this concept arose out of the High Court judgement concerning the brutalist Pimlico School, issued in 2004. The judgment concluded that ‘the secretary of state was and is entitled to consider design flaws in a building as part of the process of deciding whether it is of special architectural interest’.

Miele clarifies this by going on to stress that ‘she was not entitled to take into account the way in which the building currently fulfils or fails to fulfil its functions, except to the extent that this reflects on the design of the building’. In other words, if a building never worked in the first place, it lacks architectural quality, but if it was initially successful, and has proved less so since (be that as a result of poor maintenance, changing patterns of use or shifting demographics), then more recently perceived shortcomings should not be relevant when listing is being debated.

Paragraph 16 of Principles of Selection for Listing Buildings (the most recent edition of which was issued in 2010, many years after the Pimlico High Court case) specifically confirms that guidance which has remained consistent for many years is still valid: ‘The state of repair of a building is not a relevant consideration when deciding whether a building meets the test of special interest’.

So we have no definition of what ‘fitness for purpose’ means, and apart from that one initial court judgement, and some consideration by ministers in a few highly controversial subsequent listing cases (Robin Hood Gardens and the South Bank Centre), there has been little discussion. Under the guise of formalising ‘a more or less objective’ test for ‘fitness for purpose’, Chris Miele’s article effectively proposes a major blurring of the listing and listed building consent processes, by suggesting that many factors which go beyond architectural and historic interest should be considered as relevant to listing.

The author’s four proposed criteria for ‘establishing whether a building meets the fitness for purpose test is exercise’ are:

  1. Adaptability: ‘…A design that is difficult to adapt must get marked down’.
  2. Ease of maintenance: benchmarking spending and current condition against buildings of a similar age.
  3. The way that a building interacts with its environment, including ‘is it easy to get into… does it contribute to street vitality… and… whether or not regular visitors experience pleasure in using the building’.
  4. Financial considerations, to be measured by high occupancy rates or comparatively high rents.

All of these are highly subjective areas, and not ones which Historic England or the DCMS have, or could reasonably be expected to have, expertise on, to apply to the listing decision making process (although, of course, they would legitimately be considered at listed building consent/planning permission stage). They go way beyond what would be needed to make an assessment of fundamental design flaws, so serious that that they could reasonably be considered to undermine architectural quality.

The current case to which all this is relevant is Dunelm House, the students’ union building at Durham University, designed by the Architects Co-Partnership with the engineer Ove Arup and completed in 1966. Historic England’s enthusiastic recommendation to list the building was recently overturned by the secretary of state, who felt that the overall condition of the exposed concrete, and problems with innovative concrete roof slabs, constituted a lack of ‘fitness for purpose’.

The Twentieth Century Society has challenged this decision and the case remains open. Detailed analysis of the documents submitted in support of the certificate of immunity from listing suggest that the assessment of the concrete has been made on the basis of a visual inspection, and that the cover meter and carbonation tests recommended (standard ones to establish the extent of concrete repair needed) have not been carried out. Without these it is not possible to establish the extent of concrete repairs needed. A costed survey which was submitted proposes a remedial treatment of the roof, reusing the original tiles, suggesting that they are not fundamentally flawed.

We need a listing system that can be open and accountable. Extending listing criteria beyond architectural and historic interest, which is essentially what expanding ‘fitness for purpose’ would be doing by the back door, would make the process less democratic and impossibly unwieldy. Attempting to argue that listing is a precise science is also disingenuous. Apart from anything else, opinions and values change over time.

This is recognised in guidance: Principle 3.2 of Historic England’s Conservation Principles, published in 2008, includes this wise observation: ‘values tend to grow in strength and complexity over time, as understanding deepens and people’s perceptions of a place evolve’. It is tracking this process, and the opportunity to influence it through seeking to build that understanding, that makes the conservation of our recent past so challenging, and so interesting.

This article originally appeared as ‘Fitness for purpose: what does this mean?’ in IHBC's Context 148, March 2017. It was written by Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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