With some common sense, forward planning and patience, trading out of a listed building need not
be a handicap. Rich Airey looks at how it’s done.

Old buildings may look attractive but they can often spell trouble for their owners. For those who want to run a business out of such an old building, the story is no different – listed building consent is needed for most work and any alterations can prove costly, if they are permitted at all.

But with close consultation with local conservation officers and by making the most of a building’s character, many retailers run successful businesses from listed premises.

Londis members Kay and Richard Silcock own Linsell’s convenience store – a Grade II-listed building in Felsted, Essex, historically connected with Oliver Cromwell. On moving into the store Kay and Richard decided it needed a makeover, inside and out.
The project, which took place during 1998, was far from easy but by following correct procedure it has proved a worthwhile exercise for the business.

“It took us a long time to get planning permission to carry out the work,” says Kay. In the end we had to encase an old staircase and fireplace, losing about 20% of our space. We also had to submit paint samples before decorating.

“It can take a lot of time and money. You’ve really got to be prepared to work with your local planners and council to get things done. We are now beginning to recoup our losses with an increase in profits and are able to offer a much brighter shopping environment.”
The structure and shape of the store is still far from ideal, says Kay. “I know the shop does have a lot more character than others but from a trading point of view it can be a bit of a nightmare. It’s an awkward shape and some parts can get very dusty because of the age. You have to make the most of every bit of space. We recently just about found room in one corner for a photocopier.”
Kay’s attitude is shared by retailer Terry Philpott, who runs Martins of Castle Carey in Somerset. Terry, who has traded out of the circa 1760 building for the past two years, says: “I’ve done some work painting the exterior of the store and had to submit paint samples first, which took a bit of time, but I’m pleased with the result. The building looks great now, although I would say trading out of a listed building adds about a third of the time it usually takes to get things done because of all the official procedures.

“The store is still very traditional and it’s a case of working with what you’ve got.”

Karen and Brian Conboy, who own K and B Stores in Whitkirk, near Leeds, say it’s important to concentrate on the benefits of a listed building. Theirs dates back to the 1740s and is part of the original Temple Newsam estate. “The building is steeped in history and is a real focal point,” says Brian. “When we took the store on last year, everything was already in place and that obviously helped. We are having a small refit at the moment to put in a new floor but haven’t had any difficulties as we are not altering too much.”

“I imagine over the years there would have been a few problems and I wouldn’t particularly go into trading out of a listed building again unless I found another similar set-up,” adds Brian.

“Of course, I wouldn’t put a massive fluorescent sign on a building like mine as it would look totally out of place. If you know what you’ve got to work with listings aren’t always as serious as people believe. With a bit of common sense you can work round a lot of things.”
English Heritage head of planning and regeneration policy Charles Wagner also believes that trading out of a listed building needn’t hold retailers back and that the key to success is to work closely with the local authority. “It’s important retailers consult with planning officers at an early stage to outline their objectives,” he says.
“The main thing they need to remember is that it’s the entire building that’s listed and all fabric is of interest. If there have been any alterations in the past, it is usually the newer fabric that carries the least importance. It’s always worth doing some research to see what the building looked like in the past.”

Wagner adds: “Repairs need to use traditional materials and wherever possible we would encourage them to be long- rather than short-term. Grants to restore buildings can be awarded and are always worth enquiring about, but they are awarded at the discretion of the local authority and are provided only to support work that is non-beneficial to the business. I do sympathise with local shopkeepers who believe they need to modernise to survive, but a lot of problems are simply perceived. If people work with their local authority it’s easy to investigate what you are able to do.”

Help and advice is also available from a support group offering specialist guidance to owners of listed buildings. Spokeswoman for the Listed Property Owners Club, Kelly Smith, says: “Anyone owning a listed building is more than welcome to join us. Membership costs £55 a year and we work as a network, offering advice to a variety of businesses or home owners.

“We send out a logbook with information sheets, produce a bi-monthly magazine which contains a suppliers’ register, and run a telephone helpline for members.” Further details are available on the club website, www.lpoc.co.uk.

Most retailers trading out of listed buildings are restricted in some way with the kind of fittings and fascias that can be placed on the shopfront. English Heritage’s Wagner says: “Any conservation officer will require a replacement shopfront to be at least as good as the previous one in terms of how sympathetic it is to the rest of the building. Conservation departments don’t tend to approve of internally illuminated signs. An alternative can often be to put up more discreet strip lighting.”

John Heeks, who has run a Londis store in Lavenham, Suffolk, for the past 25 years, says that trading without a fascia hasn’t been a major issue. His Georgian-fronted 15th century building has been in the family for close to a century.

“We aren’t allowed a fascia but having never had one I can’t say whether it has held us back,” says John. “The shopfront hasn’t changed a lot in the time it’s been in the family and I don’t think I’m going to make any major changes soon. I see myself as a caretaker; I’m just looking after it for the next generation.

“The biggest problem we face is the shape of the store. I don’t think they knew what a straight line was when this place was built. You definitely need creative shopfitters.”

Like many retailers trading from a listed building, John has taken advantage of the traditional look of his shop. “We use a local supplier, Fosters Traditional Food, for our own label jams, pickles and chutneys,” he says. “It all sells well because of our character. The village draws in quite a few tourists and it’s important that we cash in on their visits.”

Roger and Anthea Bell, who have run The Balcombe Stores in West Sussex for the past eight years, also take advantage of the traditional look of the building – parts of which date back to the 16th century.

“We don’t get much passing trade, being away from the main road, so the local food we offer helps draw in locals and adds to the overall character and feel of the store. In terms of space, we manage with what we’ve got. Also, the floor is quite uneven and there are a lot of pillars, which we can’t do anything about. We could put in a floating floor but it is just not economically viable.
“In my view it’s all added character and although it’s a challenge you can work around a lot of things.”

Trading out of a listed building is never going to be as simple as trading out of a modern purpose-built shop. But that doesn’t mean a listed c-store business can’t compete in terms of profits. A little extra thought and forward planning may be required to get results but the correct approach can work wonders.

As the Silcocks found with their 1998 refit, the life of a retailer, let alone a listed building retailer, is far from easy. But like their Felsted village building, they now feel part of the landscape.

Says Kay: “In the past I may have been tempted to move to a non-listed building, but location is very important to us. We have been made to feel welcome and really feel like part of the village now.”

Local authorities can provide the first level of advice if you are looking to change any aspect of a listed building. Planning officers can alert English Heritage if extra involvement is necessary.

You will need to get listed building consent from your local council if you want to knock down or alter any part of a listed building which would then affect its character, inside or out.

Repairs that match exactly may not need consent but consultation with local planning officers is advised.

Examples of work that may need consent include changing windows and doors, painting over brickwork, putting up burglar alarms or security cameras, and making internal changes to the building’s structure.

Contact your local council’s conservation officer before making an application. The officer will be able to advise whether the changes are likely to be accepted and could save you a lot of time and money.

Your application will need to include information to show clearly what you intend to do, with detailed drawings and photographs – it’s often worth employing an architect.

Applications usually take at least eight weeks. If consent is refused you have six months to appeal.

VAT doesn’t apply to the cost of alterations to listed buildings but does apply to repairs and ordinary maintenance.

Carrying out unauthorised work on a listed building is a criminal offence, which can result in a fine or even a prison sentence.

If in any doubt – contact your local council.

Source: English Heritage