The Listing Process for historic buildings

In Northern Ireland, Department for Communities maintains ‘The List’ of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. Before a building is added to the list as a ‘Listed Building’, it needs to go through the Listing Process to decide if it meets the criteria for listing.


In Northern Ireland, the Legislation under which the Department 'lists' buildings is contained within the Planning (NI) Act 2011. Section 80(1) 'the Department shall compile lists of buildings of special architectural or historic interest and may amend any list so compiled'. Under Section 80(7) such structures are to be known as a ‘listed building’. Special architectural or historic interest is therefore the legislative test to which all new listing proposals must be compared.

The flow chart summarises the Listing Process in graphic form.

Initial Decision to Survey

The evidence used to evaluate whether a building is of special architectural interest comes only in part from a physical survey.  Historic plans, valuations. maps, archives, newspaper articles, company records and annual reports are examples of documents or images used to find out more about the significance of buildings. For example the shopfront detail in the image to the left from Belfast Building Control archive was shown to Department for Communities Historic Environment Division surveyors.

Shopfront detail from North Street plans
Shopfront detail from North Street, Belfast helps surveyors understand the significance of this building.

The Historic Environment Division will decide to investigate if a building is worthy of putting to the legislative test as a result of three normal routes:

a) A thematic survey may be commissioned to look at a particular building type. Past surveys have included: thatched buildings; historic pumps; Belfast Roof Trusses and the Mourne Water Scheme. A feature of some of this research has been voluntary help (Belfast Trusses) to isolate the best items for survey. In most cases an expert specialising in the field has been commissioned to carry out the task.

b) The normal or ‘main’ route is via a systematic survey of an area (generally known as the Second Survey). In this way buildings worthy of detailed recording and assessment are identified through general background research of an area and a ‘brief site inspection’ by commissioned surveyors. This provides the most holistic approach to recording because all the various strands of influence can be identified and put into a local context (e.g. historical context, local preponderance, etc). It is also the most cost effective. Council Areas, or part of an area, are surveyed, as a batch, because this also allows for good engagement with Councils and local stakeholders.

c) The third route is in response to listing requests from the public, the voluntary sector, District Councils, other Departmental Officers, or from members of the advisory councils, such as the Historic Buildings Council or the Joint Committee on Industrial Heritage.

By working in a group we seek to avoid any idiosyncrasies, personal likes or dislikes, or other inconsistencies, in the decision making process.

Choice of ‘Route’

Because the area based approach is the most holistic, and the most efficient, thematic surveys are commissioned only when a pressing need or other key reason has been identified. For similar reasons listing queries are also only progressed to a full survey after a type of risk assessment has been carried out.

For the majority of listing queries considered worthy of more detailed research, if there is no risk identified to the building an enquirer will be informed (as a result of the risk assessment process) that work will not be carried out until the area based (second) survey visits that area.

However, in some cases the potential threat is considered sufficient to justify the commissioning of a one off (‘ad hoc’) survey, out of sequence with the Second Survey.

In a few cases the threat may considered so great that the use of a ‘Building Preservation Notice’ could be justified. This power was transferred from DOE to District Councils in April 2015. BPN’s are defined under Section 81 of the Planning Act 2011. They ‘may’ be issued if:

‘… it appears to the Council that a building which is not a listed building-


a) is of special architectural or historic interest; and

b) is in danger of demolition or of alteration in such a way as to affect its character as a building of such interest’.

This protects a building, as if it were listed, for a period of up to six months.

If a building is considered to be at high risk of loss or significant alteration then a detailed survey will be commissioned and a letter will issue to the relevant District Council, providing details on the case and requesting that they consider serving a Building Preservation Notice.

The Survey

However commissioned, the survey, consists of a written external and internal description, accompanied by photographs, together with historical research. An evaluation of the architectural and historic value of the structure is made relative to the listing criteria. The criteria have been derived to accord with, and flesh out, the legislative tests. These are published on the department for Communities (DfC) website within a document entitled: ‘Criteria for the Scheduling of Historic Monuments and the Listing of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, with associated procedures’. Owners are informed of the process, and their potential involvement, through discussion with the surveyor and/or the issue of an explanatory leaflet.

Once complete, the survey is presented to the Department using a standard pro forma with a recommendation from the surveyor on listing. If a Building Preservation notice has been issued by the District Council then, when at all possible, this work is carried out within a tight timeframe to ensure that a final decision on listing or otherwise is made within the six month BPN period.

Some sites can be understood more fully from the air or sea, like the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island where a drone was used with the permission of the Commissioner of Irish Lights.

East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island
East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island

Evaluation Meeting

A forum of Conservation Architects and Historians Architects meets to evaluate the submitted records against the listing criteria and form a ‘proposal’. The surveyors report will subsequently be edited, if necessary, to reflect the group opinion. This work is carried out by the architect nominated to be in charge of the record.

A record of those present at the meeting and a note of relevant points to emerge is recorded by the group on a standard form ‘Record of Evaluation Meeting Decisions’

At this stage the owner, and/or the person/group who has raised the matter in regard to an individual listing query, will be informed if the Architects’ Forum has decided against listing.

Information on thematic and area based surveys are dealt with as a batch to avoid confusion for consultees and will be delayed until the whole batch, or a significant proportion of this, has been processed.


Under Section 80(3) of the Planning Act 2011 ‘Before compiling or amending any list under this section, the Department must ‘consult with the appropriate council and the Historic Buildings Council’. Formal consultation papers are normally issued (simultaneously) to these consultees.

As a matter of routine, Historic Environment Division (HED) presents and illustrates listing proposals to the Historic Buildings Council (HBC) but attends district council meetings only in exceptional cases, and generally at their specific request. [As HBC members come from throughout NI we do not expect them to be aware of the majority of buildings that come up for listing, however more local familiarity, and easier local access to the buildings is anticipated in relation to district councils and their staff].

The owner and the District Council’s planning section; is also advised of the Department’s intention at the same time. Owners are sent copies of the listing report along with an advisory note to (a) help them to confirm its accuracy and (b) to increase their understanding of the case being made for listing and alleviate any concerns.

Representation from these groups is considered, by HED, before a final decision is made. It is important to note however that the legislative test allows only the architectural or historic interest to be considered.

Concerns over the impact of listing on future planning considerations, such as development proposals, cannot be considered as part of this assessment.

DfC gives district councils six weeks to reply to the written consultation. If they do not reply, or seek an extension of time, within the 6-week period, then their support for the proposal is assumed. This approach follows normal business practice and it is clearly indicated in the letter of consultation.

Evaluation of Consultation: The ‘Wash up Meeting’.

All responses to consultations are considered at this stage by the Principal Conservation Architect (PCA) in charge of the listing process.

If relevant, the PCA will append a note of his/her consideration to the ‘approval to proceed form’ which records all consultation responses. In advance of a decision, the PCA may decide to call a wash up meeting with the relevant Senior Conservation Architect or with the Architects Forum to consider the points made.

Proposals which have been opposed are re-evaluated. This may involve a detailed reconsideration, provided that the case has been presented based upon architectural or historic grounds. As a result further research could be commissioned at this stage.

The decision at this stage of the process becomes a ‘recommendation’ when signed off by the Principal Conservation Architect (PCA) before forwarding it to the Director.

In exceptional circumstances, the PCA may, overrule the opinion of the Architect’s Forum and either, require more research, or, decide that the case for listing has not been made.

As with the previous evaluation stage, the record may be updated to take account of the revised view. If an ad-hoc query is being considered, then the owner and the proposer is informed of the Departmental decision. If the record is part of a batch it is normally held for processing along with the others in that group.

Information on thematic and area based surveys are dealt with as a batch to avoid confusion for consultees and will be delayed until the whole batch has been processed.

Delays in the listing process

In rare circumstances, the processing of a record may have been delayed after the consultation period. If this time since consultation exceeds twelve months, the owner/occupier will receive a further reminder notice of the Department’s intention to list, and therefore be given the opportunity to present any new information with regard to the listing. The record is then assessed to

  • evaluate whether this information may affect the proposal to list. The scale of any change to the record may require the building to be re-surveyed, re-evaluated against the listing criteria and/or for HBC and the district council to be re-consulted.

Preparation of Listing Papers

Following sign-off of the ‘recommendation’, by the PCA, listing papers are prepared.

‘The list’ is contained in files that are maintained, on public access in HERONI, the Historic Environment Record of NI and deposited in the Public Record Office (PRONI).

Under Section 245 of the Planning Act, an entry in a list compiled under Section 80 must be registered in the ‘Statutory Charges Register’ of the Land Registry. A map is drawn up for this purpose clearly indicating the listed building. The extent of listing is checked and finally determined, on site, by the architect responsible for the record.

This architect also confirms that the report is still accurate and up to date (i.e., it is re-compared against the original building). If it is not then the proposal may have to be re-evaluated or even resurveyed.

The listing papers are then formally signed off by the Senior Conservation Architect responsible for the record and the PCA, before they are presented to the Director.

Director’s Consideration

The Director of the Historic Environment Division is the delegated officer who acts on behalf of the Department to authorise and to sign off legal papers.

The Senior Conservation Architect presents a proposal with the statutory listing schedule for signature together with the recommendation for listing, a summary of the various consultation responses and any other correspondence on the case. He/she may also have received direct communication on the case from others.

Before arriving at a final decision, relative to the legislative test, the Director may choose to consult with other senior Departmental colleagues. This is rarely required, but may be appropriate for high profile or particularly sensitive cases.

The Director may decide that he has insufficient information or may disagree with the proposal put to him. In this case he may request that further research is carried out and/or the proposal re-evaluated by the Forum of Conservation Architects.

The Director may, in exceptional circumstances, overrule the view of the PCA/Architect’s Forum and decide that a case for listing has not been made, or that some modification of the recommendation is required.

As with the previous evaluation stages, the database record is updated to take account of the revised opinion.

If an ad-hoc query is being considered and it has been decided not to proceed with listing then the owner and the proposer is informed of the Departmental decision.

Information on thematic and area based surveys may be dealt with as a batch to avoid confusion for consultees and will be delayed until the whole batch has been processed.

Amendment of the List

The Director’s signature means the final decision to list or delist has been made, and the list is formally amended. The Departmental Seal is affixed to the new list entry and a record is placed on, or modified at, Land Registry.

As required under Section 80(4) the District Council is issued with a copy of the amendment to the list for its area. In addition, the owner receives a formal notification of the action of the Department together with a pack of information, informing them of the implications of the designation.

The survey record is also transferred onto the DfC website, for public information purposes. Information on the interior of private buildings is withheld to respect owner’s privacy rights and other security considerations.

See also

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