Written evidence submitted by Historic England [FPS 092]
Historic England is the Government’s statutory adviser on all matters relating to the historic environment in England. We are a non-departmental public body established under the National Heritage Act 1983 and sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. We champion and protect England’s historic places, providing expert advice to local planning authorities, developers, owners and communities to help ensure our historic environment is properly understood, enjoyed and cared for.
We welcome the opportunity to submit a response to the call for evidence.
The historic environment collectively comprises what generations of people have made of the places where they live. It is a precious inheritance which, when well-managed, can be a valuable source of prosperity, wellbeing and community cohesion.
Every settlement across the United Kingdom, whether a medieval market town or a post-war city centre, has a unique and distinctive history that can be harnessed to help achieve a prosperous future. Those with the power to shape the places where we live, work and visit are increasingly recognising that heritage is the key that unlocks success. It creates value and sustains economic vitality, supporting jobs and attracting investment. Heritage provides a canvas for flourishing cultural activity and it helps build connected and healthy communities. It is a vital factor underpinning vibrant and successful places.
1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?
The Historic Environment and the Current Planning System
One of the key objectives of the current planning system is the protection of the historic environment. Through its planning system, England has been at the forefront of protecting its important buildings, everyday places and archaeological remains.
The Planning White Paper (PWP) acknowledges the ‘critical role’ the planning system has played in ‘ensuring the historic buildings and areas we cherish are conserved and, where appropriate, enhanced by development’ and that the ‘additional statutory protections of listed building consent and conservation area status have worked well’ (paragraph 3.29).
Given the diversity, and dispersed nature, of the historic environment in England, a large part of how the current system has worked well is the flexibility within it, and the ability to assess impacts on the historic environment on a case-by-case basis. Those impacts may be direct ones (such as changes to an asset itself) or indirect ones (such as new development affecting the setting of a listed building). The system allows policy-makers and decision-takers to come to a balanced view, weighing up different planning matters in order to avoid conflicts and to find an appropriate balance between them.
For strategic or large sites, at Local Plan/allocation stage the current system allows for assessment of likely impacts, based on a limited amount of information. Subsequently the system allows for the actual impacts of site-specific proposals to be assessed at planning (or Listed Building Consent) application stage: based on a greater, but proportionate, level of information. This latter stage allows greater certainty for decision-makers, consultees and local communities, as to what the actual impacts of site-specific proposals might be, and it allows them an opportunity for comment.
Overall, our view is that the current system works well, when properly applied: e.g. the historic environment policy in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is effective when significance – and the impact of development upon it – is properly assessed.
Changes Proposed in the Planning White Paper
There are, of course, elements of the current planning system that could be improved. Greater use of digital technology, especially when the entire lifecycle of a planning application is considered, could improve the efficiency of the system. More standardised and accessible evidence bases (to inform local planning policies and development proposals) will help, as will integrated systems and data sharing, allowing for efficiencies in the handling of planning applications.
Greater public participation in the planning system can allow communities more scope to shape their built environment, and we are keen to see more detail on how the PWP proposals will support this. More focused Local Plan policies could help simplify the planning process and make it more accessible. More standardised information requirements for policy formation and the consideration of applications could be a benefit, but it is essential that a sufficient and proportionate level of information is provided. Master-plans and design codes, if used correctly (and with sensitivity to context), should allow for a greater degree of certainty for developers, local authorities and communities.
We welcome the intention in the PWP to build on the strong protections for the historic environment (paragraph 3.29); however, we are concerned that the PWP takes, perhaps unintentionally, a narrow view of the historic environment and that there is little actual detail about how its protection might be integrated into the new planning system in a comprehensive manner. We are keen to work with MHCLG to develop the new system, in order to address these matters and ensure that protection of the historic environment continues to be delivered as intended.
A major element of the proposals in the PWP is the move towards the allocation of sites and places into three areas (Growth, Renewal and Protected). Whilst some simplification of land allocation is possible, we have a number of concerns.
Initially those concerns relate to the capacity of these three areas to be adaptable to the multitude of different scenarios prevalent in England’s urban and rural environments. The use of a greater number of area types, and/or of sub-areas, may introduce the necessary degree of grain and sophistication to both land allocation and subsequent Local Plan policies. We are also concerned with the proposed use of more outline/in-principle type approvals at plan-making stage, as well as for automatic permissions for certain types of development, in some areas. It is not clear how and when impacts on the historic environment will be factored in to decision making, and whether sufficient information will be available at the appropriate juncture.
An increased reliance on area-based allocation and policies will require suitably detailed, up-front heritage screening and impact assessments (including consideration of designated and non-designated heritage assets, settings, and archaeological remains) before places are allocated into any given area. That evidence base must also be used to inform any plan proposals, site/area-specific rules, master-plans or design codes.
However, it will not be possible to anticipate every potential impact on the historic environment at the plan-making stage. Therefore, sufficient flexibility needs to be retained in the planning system to allow the actual impacts of site-specific proposals to be fully assessed, at the subsequent application stage in some form or another. This will also allow new issues, such as the listing of a building, to be factored into decision making.
Any new planning system, and supporting guidance, should acknowledge that heritage is not a barrier to development, and that it not only contributes to the quality of existing places but is an agent for positive change, regeneration, and place-shaping. A failure to properly integrate the strong protections for the historic environment into the planning system risks not just loss of and harm to the assets and places themselves, but also risks missed opportunities for the environmental, economic, and social benefits of the historic environment to be fully realised.
2. In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?
Our research shows that heritage does not have a negative impact on the planning application process or outcomes (just under 1000 applications were reviewed, of which a quarter had a heritage dimension). It found that, for applications with a heritage dimension, 91% were approved. The research also showed that the presence of heritage assets had no discernible impact on the time it takes to reach planning decisions.
This suggests that the planning system is not an inherent obstacle to achieving housing figures, and that lack of delivery is an issue.
We are concerned by the proposal in the PWP for local authorities to identify a buffer of sites to accommodate the differences between permissions granted and sites built out by developers (paragraph 2.25). This will lead to increased pressure for land-release where developers are failing to deliver homes. We are, therefore, supportive of the intention to explore a range of measures, within and beyond the planning system, to ensure that consents are delivered.
3. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?
Whilst we support the creation of beautiful buildings which are fit for purpose, they cannot be considered in isolation; the planning system must create beautiful and sustainable places. There are many factors which go towards creating successful places: from layout and scale of buildings, to access to local services, green space and public transport. Buildings and places should respond to their local historic and natural environment, and our publications, such as Sustainable Growth for Historic Places, Constructive Conservation in Practice and Increasing Residential Densities in Historic Environments, illustrate how the historic environment can be a catalyst and inspiration for good, modern design.
Decision-makers need the strong support of legislation and guidance to require the best design. Strong leadership at national and local level is required. Local authorities also need appropriate resources, in terms of sufficient staff with the necessary skills, to make the case for good design. The system should recognise that negotiating improvements to poorly designed schemes can take time and resources.
We are concerned about the incremental and unmanaged changes that permissive routes to development (such as Permitted Development Rights) can have on our built environments and heritage, as they can limit the ability of local authorities to deliver well-designed, sustainable places.
4. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?
Irrespective of the method of calculating housing need/requirements, environmental constraints need to be factored in to ensure unattainable levels of housing requirements are not set through an unmodified standard formula. For example, an already densely developed inner London borough with high property values and a very limited supply of brownfield sites may not have the capacity to deliver unmodified housing requirement figures.
If constraints are not considered when determining the housing requirement, there is the risk of unacceptable forms of development, not in keeping with local character and the historic environment, and a resulting conflict with other planning policy objectives (notably the delivery of sustainable development, and the conservation of the historic environment).
5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?
Engaging all communities in the planning system is important, and technology provides scope for much wider opportunities to do this than might otherwise be the case. There should also be a recognition that not all individuals, or communities, have equal access to digital technology, and also that a planning notice, fixed to a lamppost, may be more effective in informing local communities of development proposals affecting their area than an online notice.
Activity at the local level also supports public engagement, including the production of Neighbourhood Plans (the retention of which we support) and engagement in conservation area designation and review, as well as the preparation of local heritage lists. It is also important to ensure that sufficient opportunity is given, at the appropriate points, for communities to engage in the planning process and to comment on applications affecting their local area. However, with an intended increase in the use of automatic/in-principle decisions we would like to see more evidence to demonstrate how the proposed changes will enable greater public participation in the planning system.
6. How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?
The PWP recognises the importance of the historic environment in continuing to shape the future of development in England, and we welcome the commitment that robust protections will remain in place. An understanding and appreciation of the historic environment is essential in shaping places for future generations. Far from being a constraint, it is an economic driver, and is an opportunity and potential source of inspiration for new development.
However, we are concerned that references to the historic environment, in the PWP, appear to be in the narrow context of listed buildings or conservation areas rather than the usual understanding of historic environment which is made up of a whole range of designated and non-designated heritage assets, including archaeological remains and historic landscapes. The PWP also regards the historic environment as being in distinct areas capable of protection, rather than being interwoven into the fabric of our built and natural environment.
Whilst unintentional, if carried forward, this may result in missed opportunities to realise the historic environment’s potential to contribute to the shaping and regeneration of places. Conservation of historic buildings and places is also an inherently sustainable activity, and the PWP might have given greater recognition to the role that retaining and repairing historic buildings can play in combatting climate change.
As noted in our response to question 1, a new planning system must retain the flexibility to allow the actual impacts of site-specific proposals to be assessed in order to maintain current levels of heritage protection. This is true for whichever ‘area’ those heritage assets are in. The system must include some form of mechanism for assessing the impact of development proposals on the settings of heritage assets and on designated and non-designated archaeology. The system must also allow for resolution of conflicts where it is evident that matters agreed at plan-stage cannot be achieved in an acceptable form at detailed-stage.
We support the protection of areas with ‘particular…. cultural characteristics’ (PWP, paragraph 2.8) and recommend various area-based assets (World Heritage Sites (WHSs), registered parks and gardens, registered battlefields, or scheduled monuments) are included as Protected areas. Designation as a Protected area should not necessarily preclude development, nor should the presence of heritage assets stop sites being allocated as Growth areas, provided suitable mechanisms are in place to protect those assets.
In order to protect archaeological remains, we recommend the retention of a precautionary approach, and a duty to report finds at on-site stage.
We would welcome greater recognition of WHSs, and their buffer zones and settings, in legislation. This should also include consultation with Historic England, as adviser to the State Party, on larger development proposals as this would help assure UNESCO of the UK’s commitment to protecting WHSs.
The existing framework for protecting listed buildings, along with supporting guidance, allows owners to make sympathetic changes to their properties; including those to address climate change issues. We note, however, the desire to review the framework and look forward to working with MHCLG on how the heritage protection system can be improved, whilst protecting the significance of those assets.
Mechanisms such as Local Listed Building Consent Orders and Certificates of Lawfulness of Proposed Works already offer a degree of flexibility to owners when undertaking repetitive or minor works to listed buildings, and the greater use of these mechanisms should be explored.
We also recommend a statutory footing for Historic Environment Records, as they provide an important evidence base for plan-making and decision-taking, thereby helping to protect the historic environment.
7. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?
We welcome the continued commitment to optimising development of brownfield land, and the retention of existing protections for the Green Belt, noting the importance of Green Belt in protecting the setting and special character of historic towns.
8. What progress has been made since the Committee’s 2018 report on capturing land value and how might the proposals improve outcomes? What further steps might also be needed?
Developer contributions from land value uplift have an important and distinct role in securing benefits for places, specifically the historic environment.
The historic environment makes an important contribution to local character and land value. We support further consideration of how developer contributions, derived from land value uplift, can be invested in the historic environment to achieve wider place-shaping objectives.
 The NPPF defines the historic environment as ‘All aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time, including all surviving physical remains of past human activity, whether visible, buried or submerged, and landscaped and planted or managed flora.’
 The NPPF defines heritage assets as ‘A building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions, because of its heritage interest. It includes designated heritage assets and assets identified by the local planning authority (including local listing).’ This includes designated assets such as Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Conservation Areas, Registered Parks & Gardens, Battlefields and World Heritage Sites. It also includes non-designated heritage assets of local importance. It can include their settings, wider urban and rural landscapes, as well as the potential for unrecorded archaeology.