Greedy, neglectful owners of historic buildings — often on valuable sites — are holding Britain’s heritage to ransom. But a few recent triumphs bring a glimmer of hope to conservationists.

The spectacular grade II-listed Firbeck Park in Yorkshire had been sitting forlorn, empty and decaying for more than a decade when thieves stole the lead from its roof earlier this year, leaving the fragile building exposed to the elements.

The opportunistic looting was another chapter in the long and slow decline of a grand building which, in its 1930s heyday, hosted such glamorous figures as Marlene Dietrich. But it was also a turning point which could lead to the building’s salvation.

The theft was a wake-up call for Firbeck’s owner Glen Saint who, after years of neglecting the building, was inspired to forge a partnership with a new conservation officer at the local council and try to solve its problems. The first move for Saint, the owner and head of a local construction firm, and Peter Thornborrow, the local conservation officer, was to install a waterproof felt on the exposed roof to save the largely intact interiors. Since then, the owner has implemented 24-hour security, is in regular regular contact with the conservation officer and has even hired an architect to draw up plans for the conversion of the building.

He has turned from an incommunicative, often difficult owner into somebody ready to take on his responsibilities. It is the beginning of a long slow process, but the apparent epiphany experienced by Saint means the building may now have a future beyond an uninterrupted decline or an “accidental” fire, of the kind which claim several historic buildings each year.

Saint is only one of several owners of historic buildings who have let their properties slip into ruin, and sadly his conversion is rare.

Recalcitrant owners are a hard and knotty problem to crack. For many, their properties are often seen as an inconvenience or a bargaining chip in a long-running planning battle. The problem in England has become so severe that all six major heritage campaign groups are meeting this month to plan a campaign to give local authorities the power and resources to take on neglectful owners.

As BD’s investigation makes clear, their action comes not a moment too soon. The stories that follow reveal the various pressures on Britain’s built

heritage, and how neglectful owners avoid maintaining their historic buildings.

This is a tale of four very different tragedies. But they all add up to the same result: the loss of Britain’s irreplaceable heritage. An Edwardian former fire station in Manchester, a Georgian terraced house in Liverpool, the spectacular Firbeck and a Georgian family home in Barrington, Gloucester, have all suffered, with one having been recently demolished.

The former fire station on London Road in Manchester has been owned by hotel magnate and millionaire Alex Langsam for more than five years. The Edwardian building — with elaborate terracotta and brick mouldings on the large facade — is on a prominent corner site in Manchester, opposite the recently refurbished Piccadilly station.

The local council is privately concerned the prominent building is falling into disrepair and is frustrated that an 18-month-old agreement with the owner to fix damaged gutters, windows and terracotta tiles remains unfulfilled. The council is also worried the building will blight the area and undo the good done by the dramatic regeneration of the station across the road.

The council is tight-lipped about the neglect, but local heritage campaigners are able to speak more freely.

Former Manchester Civic Society chair Ray Makin said: “The Manchester Civic Society has campaigned for years to have something done with this. Any letter to the owner is just ignored. He is very thick-skinned. It is a tragedy because it is a lovely building and has been neglected for years.

“It is a horror. They have no reason to restore the building and are sitting watching the value of the land rise to ever-greater heights. Spending money on the building will not improve the value of the property. Because the owners are already hugely wealthy there is no pressure to make them do anything else.”

Parts of the large building are used for offices and storage space by the hotel chain owned by Langsam, Britannia Hotels.

Langsam, who is estimated by the Times Rich List to have a personal fortune of £62 million, was unavailable for comment, as he was on holiday. No one else at the company was prepared to talk about the building.

Barrington Park is a large grade I-listed family home in the Gloucestershire countryside. But for the past decade, it has been the scene of a long and protracted battle between the building’s owner, English Heritage, and the local council. The owner, Richard Wingfield, wants to demolish the Victorian wings of the home, leaving the Georgian core, to pass on a more manageable estate to his heirs.

The battle went to public inquiry, at which English Heritage eventually reluctantly agreed the best option was to let Wingfield demolish the wings and restore the Georgian core.

The battle has ended in a compromise that no party is really pleased with and has left heritage campaigners fuming over what they see as a historic building being used as a bargaining chip in a planning battle. The legal agreement that will allow Wingfield to demolish the Victorian wings is now close to completion after five years of negotiation.

The Victorian Society is outraged by the decision and alleges that Wingfield refused to

spend any money on the slowly crumbling building until he got his way, effectively holding it to ransom.

[Local authorities] spend all their time on planning applications and can’t chase buildings being left to rot

Victorian Society director Ian Dungavell said: “It is just astonishing that we have got to the point where part of a major grade I-listed building will be demolished and nobody is really happy about it.

“It is incredible that the intransigence of the owner has allowed him to get away with demolishing a major part of a listed building just by neglect. It is too much to call it heritage terrorism, but he is living there and can let it fall down around his ears if he wants to.”

Neither is English Heritage pleased with the outcome.

“The whole thing is in a state and needs attention soon. He has been reluctant to spend money on the building until every last i is dotted and t is crossed [on the legal agreement],” said Nick Molyneux, historic buildings inspector at English Heritage, who has overseen the case since the mid-1990s.

“This was a difficult decision. It is not a route we would normally go down, but because of the state of the Victorian wings and their relative importance, the best route was to demolish.”

Wingfield would not be drawn on the claims of neglect during negotiations. “It is a private house and a private matter. I do not wish to respond and I do not see why I have to,” he said.

In Liverpool, a listed Georgian terraced home was demolished without permission by property developer Grosvenor as part of its £800 million retail-led Paradise Street regeneration scheme. The demolition has outraged the Georgian Group, which described it as “a reprehensible and unjustified act”. The group claims the building was in a serviceable condition and is concerned the demolition could set a precedent in the city.

Georgian Group caseworker Paul Robertshaw said: “The building was the sole surviving piece of heritage in a ravaged area. As City of Culture, Liverpool should be seen to be doing right by its heritage, but it is not. The main issue is that this could set a precedent for demolition without consent.”

But Grosvenor claimed the building was beyond redemption and had to be demolished. The demolition has since won retrospective listed building consent, but could be subject to a public inquiry if deputy prime minister John Prescott decides to call it in.

Rod Holmes, project director at Grosvenor, said: “I know it was not possible to retain the building. The whole thing created a nine-month delay, as we had to redesign a replacement when we couldn’t retain the building. It was unfortunate.”

These four examples are just the start of a much longer trail of neglected buildings which present a real challenge for conservation officers across the country.

Ella Palmer, buildings-at-risk officer at Save Britain’s Heritage, said: “It is difficult for local authorities because they are so understaffed and are responsible for a huge amount of historic buildings. They spend all their time on planning applications and can’t chase buildings being left to rot.

“If they go to their legal team requesting an urgent works repair notice, they are often met with ignorance and a wariness of the legal costs involved. One lone conservation officer can’t make much of a noise.”

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister estimates there are only 700 conservation officers, but more than 30,000 buildings listed at grade II* and grade I. But there is a mood of change in the air. Heritage campaigners are hopeful that the recent successful prosecution of David Beadle, who illegally demolished his grade I-listed home, will give this small corps of conservation officers the confidence to take on neglectful owners, albeit in a David and Goliath-style confrontation.

The case resulted in Beadle being fined £15,000 and permission being refused for a replacement dwelling on the site of the demolished 1930s home, called Greenside.

The meeting later this month of all the statutory heritage groups, including the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, the Twentieth Century Society and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, to kick-start a campaign to find more resources for conservation officers, is partly inspired by this legal case.

“Now we have Greenside, people will hopefully build on that and create a case history to give conservation officers more confidence,” said Georgian Group Southern case worker Josephine Brown. “The confidence is not there at the moment, which is why Greenside is such a big victory.”

Conservation officers should also take heart from Peter Thornborrow’s work at Firbeck Park. Thornborrow has been able to work with the owner and appears to be making progress by using a combination of threats and encouragement.

“I warned the owner he either comes up with something or we will slap him with an urgent repairs notice as an adjunct to a compulsory purchase order,” said Thornborrow.

“I also told him that if the building burned down, the only thing we would consider is a rebuild. We would refuse any housing estate on the plot and would resist any development at all on the grounds.”

Firbeck Hall is still a long way from returning to its former glory, but it stands as an example of how recalcitrant owners can start to see the error of their ways and begin to take on their troubled, expensive and faded gems. Britain’s heritage depends on it.