Certificates of Immunity - a different kind of immunity
Lockdown has led us to look more closely at our local environment and in April and May, we were all rather more bound to making our way on foot or bicycle. Chris Surfleet, Head of Heritage, explains what this rare attention to our surroundings means for the heritage world , particularly relating to two normally exceptional areas of planning: spotlisting and its nemesis, Certificates of Immunity (COI).
What is spotlisting?
Spotlisting is the term given to the process whereby any member of the public can propose a building for addition to the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. The spotlisting process is now digitised, and anybody can take 20 minutes out of their day to highlight a building they think worthy of protection as a listed building. Used carefully, spotlisting can be a force for good, allowing for a thoughtful helping hand to our overstretched Government in protecting our historic environment. Used as a weapon, it can thwart the process of development quite severely, causing delays to planning applications whilst the process runs its course.
Aware of both potential sides to the spotlisting sword, Historic England now offers a system whereby the process can be fast-tracked from the normal six to nine months whilst they cogitate the merits of a spotlisting application, to a more palatable 12 weeks for a hefty fee. Therefore, if a member of the public submits a spotlisting application on a threatened building and is quite happy to wait months for a decision whilst under no pressure to pay for it, the developer can stump up the fee to Historic England to hasten the outcome. The outcome could, however, dash the hopes of one or either party. This is where Certificates of Immunity (COI) come in.
What are Certificates of Immunity (COI)?
A COI is a means by which a developer (usually) can pre-empt the risk of a spotlisting application by instigating the listing process. It can be made to flush out the potential, or otherwise, of a building being added to the list. A case can be made to Historic England to support an application and if Immunity is granted, it is granted for five years, allowing decisions to be made in that knowledge. Again, for a fee, Historic England will hasten the process.
So, COIs have become a lockdown deterrent to the idle spotlisting application. I have seen more COI applications in 2020 than in 20 years of working in the heritage field.
Not surprisingly, COIs have a useful role to play when developers are even more risk-averse than in normal times, but they can also be considered to form an important part of estate strategy, given the consequences of the alternative outcome. Additionally, with buildings becoming eligible for listing when they are only 30 years old (and exceptionally when they are younger than that), it is perhaps unsurprising that property management might need to have one eye on this potential. It may then be understandable that there have been systematic COI applications made for numerous power stations across the UK; an early Nissen hut at RAF Duxford; the Brutalist Lloyds TSB Bank in Pride Hill, Shrewsbury; technical buildings at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire.
And what entity features most in the list where buildings have immunity from listing for five years? The answer is local authority-owned property, including Southampton City Council, Brighton and Hove, Wokingham, Castle Point, East Devon, Staffordshire, Cheadle, Lincolnshire, Bedford, Suffolk Coastal, Tendring, Tameside, Scarborough, Crawley, Bristol. The list goes on.
As one client put it,
“if the worst thing that happens is that the building could be listed, I think I would rather know now than risk tens of thousands of pounds to find out later.”