Buying and selling your home is nerve-wracking at the best of times. With markets remaining sluggish in all but favoured hot spots, this is truer than ever. People are being very careful about what they buy and where: I know this, having recently bought back into the London market. Most properties pushed our way by agents had been on for ages and always had something wrong with them.
One of the things that spook the uninitiated is houses being located in protected historic cores. Most historic town centres across Europe are covered by fairly draconian heritage legislation. New development is restricted, with alterations – and even repairs – to existing properties requiring permission. Buying into these areas requires coming to terms with the red tape and loss of property rights and trading them off for the “olde worlde” charm of a historic location. The question is whether the restrictions of conservation areas just add to the anxieties of purchasers and make places harder to sell.
Well, there is increasing evidence that they actually add to the value and attraction of homes. Research soon to be published by the London School of Economics, based on Nationwide Building Society’s house price index, found that houses in conservation areas in England sold for 23 per cent more, on average, than houses outside the protected zones. This was partly because of location and the kind of properties involved, but even when these factors were taken into account houses in conservation areas were still found to sell for a premium of about 9 per cent – and the bigger and the older the conservation area, the higher the premium. Better news still for owners of houses in these zones is that prices in conservation areas have grown at a rate that exceeds comparable properties elsewhere by 0.2 per cent.
An assessment of attitudes to conservation area controls in 10 London boroughs found that there was not much hostility to the planning system among residents. In fact, homeowners who had applied for permission were more likely to have positive attitudes than those who had not. Most people recognised that controls were protecting the quality of the place where they lived.
Research carried out by the National Heritage Board in Sweden in 2008 reached a similar conclusion. It was trying to establish whether there was a link between places of outstanding cultural beauty and house prices. It discovered that in parishes with strong heritage, prices were between 16 per cent and 45 per cent higher than if there had been no or much less local heritage. On the island of Visingsö in Jönköping, southern Sweden, for instance, prices were 45 per cent higher than expected for the size and type of property. In 2005, the heritage agency of Denmark conducted a survey asking individuals and companies for their opinion on heritage. Two-thirds of people questioned said heritage was an asset for local development, and especially for tourism. Companies and individuals all said that they were willing to pay more for housing in areas with stronger heritage qualities.
The fact is that in a globalised economy multinational companies can choose where to go. Obviously, financial considerations, such as corporation tax, are an important factor when deciding where to locate a business. But successful companies also rely on recruiting the best employees – and discerning and talented people will choose historic, interesting places to live. It is therefore an effective use of assets for corporations to site headquarters in attractive, culturally rich locations that attract a talented workforce.
The City of London was ranked first in a recent Global Financial Centres Index survey – with the quality of life in London playing a significant role in it landing top spot. The Corporation of London recognises this, and it explains why it is the second-largest patron of cultural facilities in the UK after central government. The Barbican Centre’s theatres, concert halls, cinemas and galleries are central to the offer that the City makes to its workers. So is the built heritage: the medieval lanes, St Paul’s Cathedral, the pubs, markets and the Tower of London. The City is a place of ancient character, and this attracts big business.
So the message to politicians who see heritage legislation as restrictive and stifling of growth is: look at the evidence. People like living in protected, historic places and it makes their properties more valuable. Companies want to locate close to conservation areas because their employees want to live there. Enlightened local authorities invest in culture and heritage because they know that it makes their environment attractive to business. Heritage is not a blight.
Dr Simon Thurley is chief executive of English Heritage