Home Improvement in London

I write in this blog often on my frustrations with regulation, but last night I learned, if I did not know it already, that things could be much worse.  I had dinner with some friends in London who are in the middle of a home improvement and renovation project on their 1830's era townhouse.  Now, I just completed a renovation of my own (1980's era) home in Phoenix, and, while home improvement is always frustrating, I at least had few problems with the city.  Phoenix will let you do about anything you want to your home as long as you respect your setbacks and don't install a nuclear reactor.

My London friends were not so lucky.  Their home is rated a class 2 historic structure, which means it gets a bit less scrutiny than class 1 palaces and stuff, but it still comes in for a lot of regulation.  Their plans had to be approved in detail, and I mean in gory detail, with the local history Nazis.  And this is for a building that really has little historic or aesthetic value (the owners would be the first to admit this) in a neighborhood that was nearly blighted thirty years ago. 

My hosts pointed out the dining room lighting, which was really dim (you could not see your food very well) band told me that the authorities would not let them add lighting fixtures to the room.  No doorways, moldings, or walls could be changed.  The funniest example of this was a doorway cut in a wall 20 years ago.  The government inspector came through the house and said "well, that door is not historic but I like it so you can't change it."  They thought the inspector was joking, but, after a lot of effort to get approval to change the door, found out she was not kidding. 

The staircase to the top floor (originally the servant's quarters) was steep and unsafe for their children, but the inspector insisted it could not be changed because the "logic" of having the servant's quarters accessible by a difficult staircase needed to be maintained.  The homeowners rebuttal that they had no servants and were more concerned with safety than the history of class differences in Britain had no effect.  In several cases where the homeowners argued that the portions of their house they wanted to change was not original to the house (and therefore not covered by restrictions) it was made clear that the burden of proof was on them, the homeowners, and not on the government.

As one other funny sidebar, the basements and below grade areas of these homes apparently don't fall under this scrutiny or are exempted in some way.  As a result, everyone in his neighborhood seems to be tunneling out into their backyards to expand their house.  One homeowner bought three adjacent homes and tunneled out enough area for an indoor underground swimming pool.

Can you imagine if someday the US government decided that those 1970's homes were subject to such historic restrictions?  Suddenly, by government fiat, instead of being stuck forever with insufficient lighting and unsafe staircases, you might get stuck with orange shag carpet and gold-mirrored walls.  If you think this is ridiculous, read this.

Suffice it to say, I am tired of a relatively small group of people imposing their wishes on other people's property, a practice I call eminent domain without compensation.  If you want something specific done to a piece of property, then buy it and have at it.

  • dearieme

    Our house is too young for such restrictions. On the other hand, we have two trees that we are not allowed to fell or prune substantially. That would apply even if their roots were undermining the house.