Last edited 13 May 2021

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The history of listed buildings

This article originally appeared as ‘Listing’s 70th anniversary’ in IHBC’s Context 152, published in November 2017. It was written by Deborah Mays, head of listing advice, Historic England.

From the Modern Domesday to digital enrichment, from the humble to the splendid, through Greenbacks and Bluebacks, listing brings beauty and culture to social and economic life.

In 1947, the Town and Country Planning Act set out, as described by the proposing minister, Lewis Silkin MP, ‘to begin a new era in the life of this country, an era in which human happiness, beauty and culture will play a greater part in its social and economic life than they have done before.’[1]

This represented the birth of ‘buildings of special architectural or historic interest’, a new subset of our built and historic environment that, unlike their scheduled predecessors, could be inhabited and subject to appropriate and necessary change, provided that their character be maintained. This class of – still, mostly – buildings was to be a living resource for people, underpinning everything from personal economics and local communities to national pride in a heritage of place that was still only beginning to be fully appreciated.

As such, private, public and future interests could benefit from and enjoy the design, context, narrative and material form of listed fabric and settings. The process also captured a myriad of other values that we have later come to recognise, from embodied energy and sustainability to their potential to spearhead regeneration that would be ‘heritage-led’.

Such listings, as they became familiarly known, might be grand structures or modest fabric, as they needed only to display a specialness to their architecture and its history. The list today continues to recognise the humble tradition of good building, be it in the 1950s terraced housing by Tayler and Green, or classical splendour, such as the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute, completed in 1835. So in 2017 the UK boasts a total of 463,550 listed buildings. With a population approaching 66.3 million, that is a valuable drop in a very large ocean. Seventy years on there is much to celebrate.

Ever evolving and developing since their inception, the lists have continued to respond to changing demands and expectations. They were first progressed from salvage lists – drawn up to determine whether a particular building should be protected from demolition if bomb damaged – in a pioneering survey led from 1947 by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The initial nationwide list, necessarily prepared on a heroic scale, took nearly 25 years and resulted in 120,000 entries. It has been referred to as ‘The Modern Domesday’.

In response to the intensive urban redevelopment of the 1960s, and the introduction of listed building consent through the Town and Country Planning Act 1968, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government set in motion a fresh survey, the ‘resurvey’. This work focused initially on 39 historic cities and towns, the centres of which were particularly threatened by post-war redevelopment. Consequently, it left the rural areas with the brief list entries of their first incarnation. These lists were published in spiral-bound volumes from December 1970 with green covers earning them the nickname ‘the Greenbacks’. The chosen administrative unit of the Greenbacks was the civil parish. The selection criteria were revised simultaneously and the valuable concept of the subject’s group value was greatly strengthened.

In August 1980 Michael Heseltine, as secretary of state for the environment, took action to accelerate the resurvey following the demolition of the art-deco Firestone Factory in Brentford, London. That resurvey work was managed first by 22 local authorities, and then through the private sector, notably with 11 architectural practices. This resurvey, the second survey, took a more inclusive approach, considering a wider range of structures for listing, and introducing a ’30-year rule’ to enable the inclusion of more modern designs and building types. A fresh review of urban areas from 1989 led to ‘the Bluebacks’, the last of which was completed in Bath in 2010.

When English Heritage took the responsibility for listing from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2005, it improved further on the format and content of the list entries, including sections on history, details and the bullet-pointed reasons for designation, which help to distil the subject’s significance.

The need to make the lists more robust – and to serve more effectively as a tool within the planning system – has led modern lists to evolve further, and set out the subject’s narrative and description more fully. As wider audiences and easier public access to the list were sought, so too came the introduction of the advanced search facility and the map search, offering even broader routes in to this encyclopaedic body of planning and cultural information. Now, with a global audience through the online and searchable treasure house that is the National Heritage List for England, launched in 2011, these individual nuggets of accessible learning on our buildings are open to all to view and enjoy: for use by everyone from planners to developers, genealogists to journalists, and owners to tourists.

The list will continue to evolve. Although the Heritage Protection Bill of 2008 failed to pass into statute, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 saw through some key intentions, and it is now possible to set out precisely whether attached or curtilage structures are protected by a listing.

Responding to the public appetite for and interest in the list, since June 2016 it has been possible through our Enrich the List initiative for anyone to contribute to this remarkable resource, bringing their own images and narrative to enhance our collective knowledge and understanding of listed fabric. This innovative, inclusive approach to heritage management helps expand our heritage knowledge and appreciation of listed fabric, both within our communities and into our planning considerations. As such, Enrich the List binds listing – as a management system for one of our most accessible, if easily overlooked, community resources – into the most inclusive statements of what we value in the places and fabric for which we all care.[2]

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of listing in 2017, Historic England invited a range of views on the success or failure of the act to provide a heritage debate online.[3] These incisive articles – with contributions ranging from conservation practitioners such as Bob Kindred, to David Lovell, listed building enthusiast and top contributor to Enriching the List – offer lively coverage and tasters of the journey from 1947.

Today we see local planning authorities striving with diminished resources to fulfil the powers available to manage and protect the listed stock, enforcement being recognised more in the breach than the observance, for example (a hard reality that Bob Kindred and the IHBC have exposed [4]). Meanwhile, the recent loss of a Jacobean ceiling at 15 Small Street, Bristol, has led to calls for interim protection to be brought into the toolkit. It seems that we could usefully remind ourselves just how the 1947 act shaped and protected the calibre of our towns, villages and cities, and why we must build on its achievements.

Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, has concluded that the 1947 act ‘created a system capable of fulfilling the social, environmental and economic objectives of reconstruction and long-term land management. There is a logic and clarity to the structure of the system which has never been matched, and it delivers on housing and conservation objectives in an unprecedentedly successful manner.’[5]

Happily, a digest of the anniversary’s overviews shows the resounding conclusion that the 1947 act is something to be celebrated across England and beyond. It had, as Ellis explained, a radical heart, and was elegant in structure and poetic in outcome.[6] The act can be credited as one of the great successes of the post-war period, securing the protection of our built and historic environment and its character at a time of unprecedented change in our places. Its principles are even more relevant and vital to society today, as we face drastic climatic and environmental change, unimagined 70 years ago


This article originally appeared as ‘Listing’s 70th anniversary’ in IHBC’s Context 152, published in November 2017. It was written by Deborah Mays, head of listing advice, Historic England.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again