Does the Past have a Future?

THIS MONTH’S WISE OWL | David Tomback F.R.i.C. – Historic England

David Tomback F.R.i.C.S is Development Economics Director at Historic England (formerly part of English Heritage). His wide remit includes providing in-house commercial property advice; listed building consents especially in connection with enabling development; re-use of redundant historic buildings; and the economics of conservation. Whilst with Historic England he has been involved in significant economic studies, including “The Investment Performance of Listed Buildings”, and “The Value of Conservation”. Recently David was responsible for “Heritage Works – The use of historic buildings in regeneration”.


How did you come to find yourself at Historic England?

Before joining English Heritage in 1993 I had spent 20 years in the private sector working both as a Chartered Surveyor and also a property developer with two years in an aggressive American bank. Upon joining English Heritage, now Historic England, I began to appreciate the opportunities and challenges that historic properties can offer.

Does Historic England only deal with listed buildings?

No, actually there are a number of different types of heritage assets and these can include monuments, battlefields and maritime wrecks. However, the most well-known, and certainly most numerous type of heritage asset is the listed building. There are approximately 400,000 listed buildings in England in three categories namely, Grade I (the highest), Grade II* and Grade II. Grade II is the lowest though they are all of national importance. Listed buildings make up less than 2% of the building stock in the country and so proportionally is a small number of buildings.

Do you think the challenges surrounding listed buildings can make them more trouble to develop than they’re worth?

Over the years I have been involved with numerous historic buildings and met many developers, and there is no doubt in my mind that heritage buildings can add interest and a focal point for new development. The key is to work with the fabric of the building, retaining as many important features as possible. Liz Peace, ex-CEO of the BPF (British Property Federation) said:

“In the UK we are blessed with a huge variety, quantity and high quality of heritage buildings which attract tourists from all over the world. Properly maintained and incorporated within redevelopment schemes, heritage assets can add value and interest and when used properly as an asset and given new life continues to be one of the cornerstones of the economic and social revival of many of our towns and cities”.

I wholeheartedly agree with that.

What advice would you give a developer considering a project involving a historic building?

The starting point when buying or seeking to include historic buildings within a development is to understand the rules. Policy for the conservation and enhancement of the historic environment is largely unchanged and is set out in the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), issued in July 2018: heritage assets are still defined as “a building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions, because of its heritage interest”, and are deemed by the government to be an irreplaceable resource. This certainly does not mean that historic properties are to be “preserved in aspic”. However, alterations or additions should ideally cause minimal harm to the properties’ character and fabric. For anybody considering acquiring a historic building for redevelopment or acquiring a site where historic assets are included, I have some “tips”.

1. Historic England together with the RICS and British Property Federation commissioned Deloittes to prepare a practical step-by-step guide which is entitled Heritage Works – publications/heritage-works/ and it is well worth a read.

Currently in its third edition, this document sets out the economic case, together with those factors which can lead to success – as well as those stumbling blocks that need to be avoided, together with solutions. This is a good practice document and gives links to many useful webpages where further, more detailed technical advice can be found.

2. Take advantage of Historic England’s Enhanced Advisory Services ( enhanced-advisory services/), and, in particular, when acquiring a large site, our listing screening service. This assesses areas facing redevelopment and identifying the most likely candidates for listing.

One lesson I learnt whilst working in the American bank was that if there is a problem or issue, it is better to know about it upfront and deal with it rather than having acquired the site, only to discover that there are buildings or structures upon it which could have statutory protection or worse, are spot listed.

3. Wherever possible always have engagement in early consultation with the relevant authorities, whether it be the local planning officer and conservation officer, or, in some cases such as Grade 1 or II* buildings, Historic England.

4. Perhaps the key ingredient for success, once you’ve done all your homework, is to pay the right price for the building in the first place. Whilst this is true in all property acquisitions, it is particularly so when dealing with historic assets as the price paid should truly reflect the cost of restoration and conversion, if that’s what’s planned, as well as the condition of the building and the planning constraints attached to it. A common problem arises by the owner paying too much for the site/building and then trying to retro-fit a scheme that generates the return originally envisaged.

Do you expect to see any changes to the way the restoration of historic buildings is governed?

The level of heritage protection has remained consistent for many years and the current Government recognises the importance of the historic environment and has no intention to reduce, whether through the Framework or otherwise, the important protections that exist for it.

Would you encourage developers not to discount projects because they involve historic buildings?

Historic assets can offer a real opportunity for those developers and investors who understand the “rules of the game”. There is no doubt in my mind that the past does have a future and for Historic England’s part, we wish to encourage as many developers and investors into the sector as possible to bring historic buildings back into long-term beneficial use.

David Tomback and members of his team from Historic England will be attending the annual UTB & James Andrew International drinks reception at MIPIM 2019.