Owners of Whanganui's historic buildings will soon be able to apply for a ratepayer subsidy for work which enhances the city's heritage.

Whanganui district councillors have given the green light to a heritage grant scheme which will pay up to 50 per cent of the cost of such work (or 80 per cent for work under $15,000).

Council's principal planner Hamish Lampp said the city's heritage building stock was vital to its economy but some were facing "demolition by neglect".

To be eligible buildings need to be listed in the district plan and the work will need improve the appearance of buildings in line with its original look.

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It is not about earthquake strengthening.

"Earthquake strengthening is a formidable sum of money which is beyond what this council could reasonably offer," Lampp said.

"It's not about routine maintenance and repairs and it's not about internal works. It needs to be work that's of benefit to the general public."

However, Lampp said the fund would complement the Ministry of Culture and Heritage fund for earthquake strengthening work.

"What this will do is add an incentive," he said.

The scheme was approved by the council's strategy and finance committee on Tuesday when councillor Helen Craig said it was the first major step towards what the town centre regeneration steering group she chairs wanted to achieve.

"It will have a significant impact on the look of our town centre and the ability of building owners to retain their facades."

An assessment panel will be formed to look at applications and make recommendations to council's chief executive.

"I like the ability to have a panel with qualified people who understand the ambiance of Whanganui and can impose guidelines," councillor Rob Vinsen said.

But he wanted to ensure buildings were of genuine heritage value rather than "spending small amounts of money on inconsequential buildings".

The fund will be kick started with a $150,000 transfer from an underused building assessment assistance fund while the council's draft long-term plan proposes to add $100,000 per year.

There will be three funding rounds per year.

Council staff will be hosting an evening for property owners in May and will be promoting the scheme in other ways.

"Really, this is very much a door knocking exercise," Lampp said.