Historic homes report outlines energy efficiency challenges

The government has published a wide-ranging review of the barriers to upgrading energy efficiency in historic properties.

A cross-departmental group representing Culture, Media and Sport, Energy Security and Net Zero and Levelling Up, Housing and Communities carried out  a range of research with stakeholders. The group concluded that a combination of planning restrictions, skills shortages and high costs all provide potential obstacles to improving the energy efficiency and reducing carbon in such properties. It identifies no fewer than 55 measures in its ‘Next Steps’ conclusion.

In their foreword, ministers Baroness Penn, Lord Parkinson and Lord Callanan say:

Historic homes are …cultural assets that we need to protect, conserve and adapt for the benefit of future generations. Ensuring they can be adapted to accommodate energy efficiency measures and low carbon heating in a sensitive fashion is key to ensuring their long-term survival… Historic properties make up a significant proportion of the UK’s building stock, with 5.9 million buildings constructed before 1919. Historic properties can and should be part of the solution…

Local authority skills

A significant barrier to the upgrading of such properties was the skill level and capacity of the local authority when it comes to conservation.

The authors said:

There is no training available that specifically draws heritage, sustainability, and retrofit together…This lack of training was noticeable to contributors who said that planners were not taking into account homeowners’ experience of living in their homes. There was perceived to be a lack of confidence in today’s planners and conservation officers to say ‘yes’ to proposed energy efficiency proposals.

Often, the review found, local authorities were sharing conservation officers and stakeholders reported that these officers  ‘were not always interested in the Net Zero agenda, instead being entirely focused on short-term heritage concerns.’

Planning system

The planning system was a particular cause of difficulty for building owners, with an inconsistent approach from building control across local authorities creating delays in getting retrofit measures approved.

The authors noted that many retrofit measures that did not require planning permission in ‘conventional’ housing would need local authority consent in a listed property. The process for listed building consent, often also required, while acknowledged to be important, was rated as bureaucratic and costly to owners.

The report acknowledged that the installation of heat pumps is another challenging area for listed buildings, and although its recent review of the noise from heat pumps recommends a change to permitted development around installation, this will not apply to historic properties. The review notes that guidance around noise reduction has been inconsistent from different local authorities and often proves prohibitively expensive.

In a bid to help those involved with historic buildings, Historic England is consulting on guidance for owners. The authors said:

Providing greater clarity at the outset to those living in historic homes on their options and the associated planning requirements, and improved advice to decision-makers on taking balanced decisions, will facilitate consistent and faster decision-making.

The government said it is seeking to address this issue with more funding for planning departments, along with increasing the cost of planning applications, which helps fund such departments.


The guidance available to property owners was also highlighted as a major issue – not only surrounding what requires planning permission and what doesn’t, but also the requirements of Energy Performance Certificates. Building owners complained that EPCs as they stand are not fit for purpose for a historic building, because they don’t adequately take into account the traditional means of construction.

The DLUHC has committed to clarifying the planning permission guidance for historic buildings and has promised to consult on EPCs ‘in the coming months.’

A further area of concern highlighted is the skills of the construction sector to adapt, maintain and upgrade historic buildings. The government said it acknowledges the importance of having buildings upgraded by contractors appropriately qualified in heritage buildings and has committed to ensuring that heritage skills are included within its work on low carbon heating training and retrofit hubs.

Cost barriers

The final barrier identified in the review is the cost of upgrading the buildings, which are often more expensive than conventional homes to improve. The review notes that historic buildings haven’t yet featured heavily in its incentive programmes such as the Home Upgrade Grant or Boiler Upgrade Scheme, largely because of the cost and complexity of getting planning permission.

The government has also committed to including historic properties in the outcomes of its research on complex-to-decarbonise buildings.

The report concludes:

Establishing robust and proportionate incentives that allow historic homes to be adapted to meet these differing challenges is key, and we are clear that that heritage protection is compatible and indeed complementary to support for the energy efficiency and climate adaptation agenda