Written evidence submitted by Historic England [PDR 057]
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.
Historic England welcomes the HCLG Committee’s inquiry to examine the Government’s approach to Permitted Development Rights (PDR). Historic England has adopted the following interpretation of the call for evidence:
Schedule 2 of the GPDO - Class O (office to residential). We note that Class O will be replaced by Class MA after 31 July 2021.
Schedule 2 of the GPDO – Class MA (commercial, business and services to residential).
The focus will be on the new Use Class E (commercial, business and service) following its introduction in September 2020.
Providing evidence in relation to the PDR regime can be challenging, as, by its nature, it is not something on which Historic England is consulted. This submission highlights where harm to the historic environment is most likely to occur, and which aspects are at greatest risk from amendments to the PDR regime.
Historically PDR has sought to address minor development proposals within a framework which is subject to certain limitations or conditions. The intended role of PDR is set out in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (GPDO):
“The Order…grants planning permission for a range of predominantly minor development…” (paragraph 4.2).
In Historic England’s view the role of PDR is to apply a standardised rules-based approach, where minor development proposals are straightforward, with minimal risk and acceptable impacts. LPAs are able to manage local impacts through an Article 4 Direction, should this be required.
Since the 2015 GPDO, amendments have extended the scope of PDR in relation to both the scale of development and degree of change proposed. From a historic environment perspective various types of designated heritage asset are handled differently, sometimes across similar types of development proposal. For example, certain Classes within Schedule 2 exclusions apply to all article 2(3) land, whilst in other cases (such as Class MA) PDR is only applicable within Conservation Areas, with other article 2(3) land excluded.
Development through PDR also risks a wider impact on non-designated heritage and setting. This is due to increasing PDR coverage, with regard to both types of development proposal and geographical coverage, alongside a corresponding reduction in overall control of development by LPAs to assess and mitigate impact on heritage.
The rate of change to PDR between 2019 and 2021 has resulted in an increasingly complex system, with insufficient time between each change to fully understand the impacts, implications and unintended consequences. The use of PDR was addressed by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICs) in their 2018 report:
“There is a problem at present with how permitted development rights work in practice and the circumstances in which they are being used.”
In terms of potential solutions:
The PDR process has also been used to positively respond to recent challenges. Temporary arrangements introduced in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Order 2021 such as Class BB have been welcomed as they have supported heritage sector recovery and been established in a way which carefully limits the risk of harm.
Historic England suggests that there are several aspects of PDR that warrant further consideration to improve consistency with the Planning White Paper’s vision.
PDR has evolved beyond minor works to include relatively substantial development such as upwards extensions and wholesale changes of use. The PDR process reduces the ability for design quality to be assessed and risks the delivery of well designed, beautiful, and safe places. At present there is no compulsion for PDR development to adhere to local design standards and place-shaping strategies.
The cumulative impacts of PDR are resulting in development that is no longer inconsequential. The physical and experiential character of places is increasingly vulnerable to PDR. Limited scrutiny of PDR development is resulting in incoherent physical alterations that adversely affect appearance, while changes of use impact upon the vitality and experience of places. Since 2018 the following reports have raised concerns regarding change of use and the resultant quality of residential dwellings:
“permitted development rights for office to residential change of use has led to…much criticism for reducing quality…” (page 69).
Government has addressed some of these concerns through conditions and prior approval. Minimum space standards have been set (which came into force in April 2021) and provision made for adequate natural light in all habitable rooms. Prior approval is required (for demolition and change of use) before the commencement of development to assess the effects of surrounding land uses. Class ZA also considers design and access to amenity space.
For development through PDR for conversions and change of use, non-designated heritage and design considerations remain unaddressed in both PDR exclusions and prior approval matters. Given the importance the PWP places upon character, design, quality and sustainability amendments in relation to these matters would better align the PDR regime with the wider planning reform vision.
A key objective of the PWP is to streamline and simplify the planning process. PDR offers a streamlined route for development. Under this streamlined regime heritage matters are not fully assessed risking harm to the historic environment.
The PDR regime is also moving away from a simplified process due to the number of amendments, extended scope and variety of prior approval arrangements required for the process to operate effectively.
Conservation of the Historic Environment:
PDR is having an impact upon townscape and character, which consequently affects the setting of heritage assets, the character of historic places more generally, and can harm the significance of non-designated heritage assets and their setting. Except for Class ZA, there is no prior approval mechanism to properly assess the presence of unknown or undiscovered archaeological remains, or ensure development under PDR sufficiently considers the historic environment or mitigates harm. The ability to attach conditions to PDR consents is also severely restricted.
As Historic England stated in its response to MHCLG’s high streets and housing delivery consultation (2019):
“Whilst the exclusion of Article 2(3) land, listed buildings (and their curtilage), and scheduled monuments is welcomed, this would not address the impact on the other designated and non-designated heritage assets and their setting, nor the general quality and character of the built environment.”
Under the current regime, PDR is unable to consider the more nuanced aspects of historic significance (designated and non-designated) or setting, as follows:
Heritage assets are inherently varied and the way to manage change most effectively is to base change upon the merits and significance of that individual asset. Existing local mechanisms such as design codes and Local Development Orders (LDO) are useful in efficiently guiding such change.
The scope and breadth of PDR reduces the ability of LPAs to positively plan for and shape their communities. Nationally-determined PDR such as Class O and Class MA can counter the ability of LPAs to respond to local needs through the formulation and delivery of locally appropriate strategies; they do not allow for a holistic and strategic approach that is required to address the complex challenges facing town centres.
LPAs controls over development through the PDR route at a local level are limited. Prior approval matters for consideration by LPAs are set within the GPDO and, with the exception of Class ZA and Class MA, do not extend to the historic environment. This is of concern for LPAs in their ability to respond to the impact of development upon the historic environment.
Prior approval under Class ZA whereby the developer must apply to the LPA for prior approval as to the impact of development on heritage and archaeology, and the design of the new building, sets a useful precedent. This could be extended to other PDR within the GPDO or local Orders. It would also allow LPAs to take the nuances of heritage assets’ significance into account especially given the broad range of uses and development through PDR.
LPAs at present can use Article 4 Directions to manage the risks associated with PDR and limit the impact upon historic commercial areas, town centres and conservation areas. Evidence shows the use of Article 4 Directions is widespread across LPAs. Research conducted by the IHBC in 2008 found of the 72 LPAs surveyed, 81% had Article 4 Directions for one or more of their conservation areas. Article 4 Directions are an important tool for LPAs to ensure their locality is not adversely impacted by the generic application of PDR.
Use Class E covers a broad range of commercial, business, and service uses with changes permitted between these uses without a planning application. As Article 4 Directions only deal with physical development, rather than change of use, any transfer of use within Use Class E can take place without an Article 4 Direction curtailing its use. As a consequence, the vibrant mix of high street premises comprising all of these uses can now, through the PDR, change without the need for express permission or regard to plan policies.
Commercial to residential conversions under Class MA also limit LPAs’ ability to respond to this transition in the character and use of an area. This has implications for the historic environment as heritage assets, used as commercial premises, are drivers of regeneration and economic growth. Their take-up for higher value residential uses does not provide the same catalyst for regeneration as commercial, business and service uses.
PDR which permit conversion to residential uses can risk the vitality and diversity of town centres and high streets which are the focal point for commercial, business and service uses and are accessible locations for employment as well as drivers of economic growth. Within town centres a balance is needed between complementary residential and business uses, but the key is management of this change.
Heritage plays an important role in supporting economic growth by offering adaptable and unique business premises. The Heritage Counts Heritage in Commercial Use report (2018) confirmed the value heritage provides:
“A city’s conserved historic core can differentiate that city from competing locations thus helping the city attract investment and talented people… Distinctive and characterful working spaces are a ‘pull’ factor for businesses”.
In 2018 142,000 businesses were operating in listed buildings across England with retail occupiers the largest subsector. Whilst listed buildings are exempt from Class O and Class MA, the conversion of non-designated historic buildings used for businesses to residential dwellings risks loss of diversity and homogenisation of town centres and high streets:
“This balance concerns the rationing of a finite resource – in this case heritage assets in commercial use – which must consider that allowing land to be allocated to the highest current value could lead to overconsumption with no land available for future investment” (Heritage Counts 2018).
The future adaptability of high streets could be significantly reduced by the potential pepper-potting of residential uses from Class MA, risking local agglomeration economies as units are converted from public to private uses.
Permitted development rights reduce the number of proposals which are subject to the normal planning process, and thereby significantly reduce the ability of communities to engage in the positive management of the appearance and operation of their local areas. The transformation of places through Class O or Class MA also risks displacement of office and commercial space out of high streets and town centres making these uses less accessible for local communities.
Historic England considers there is a role for PDR in the planning system by ensuring the PDR process complements planning reforms and works in a holistic way with the plan-led system.
A positive approach to development is best achieved through the formulation and delivery of locally appropriate strategies, via the plan-led system. Utilising existing tools such as Local Development Orders (LDO), Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDO) and Local Listed Building Consent Orders (LLBCO) would still enable greater certainty and a reduction in planning applications but would also allow for increased flexibility and local determination. LPAs would benefit from improved control and would be able to engage with local communities in their provision.
Reforming PDR with a greater emphasis on local context was recommended in the Raynsford Review (November 2018); recommendation 5 sought to return control over PDR to the local level:
“There is the need to return to the local level powers that have been centralised. Of all such issues, it is restoring basic controls over the conversion of office and commercial buildings to housing units which is the most urgent. This requires a new and simplified GPDO which would give local authorities the powers to control such development. It would also give them the freedom to set their own PD regimes for minor development which is consistent with the objectives of sustainable development and the health and wellbeing of their citizens” (page 93).
Historic England considers the use of LDO, NDO and LLBCO would address many of the issues outlined above. It enables LPAs to produce generalised consent orders for certain types of work, reducing the need for applications to come forward and streamlining the planning process. The Orders are based on local understanding and are positive place-shaping tools that account for the nuances of the historic environment. Uptake of such Orders have, to date, been low but with better promotion they could be used more widely and effectively.
As stated in PAS guidance for councils on Local Development Orders (March 2019):
“One of the principal advantages of an LDO is that it can be shaped to local circumstances and embody local aspirations.”
Conditions can also be imposed on development that is permitted through local Orders, which ensures that matters relating to design, the conservation and enhancement of heritage, and undesignated archaeology are properly considered.
LPAs have the local knowledge to apply LLBCO effectively and with minimal risk to heritage. There are opportunities to make better use of LLBCO by improving awareness of their benefits, targeting the correct LPA audiences, and increasing confidence in their use. Historic England continues to promote this valuable tool to increase take-up, including through the production and dissemination of its published advice.
It would be beneficial for Government to monitor and share additional data on PDR, including demolitions, to allow for in-depth analysis to understand the impact of PDR on the historic environment.
 RICS (2018) Assessing the impacts of extending permitted development rights to office-to-residential change of use in England p.40, p.92.
 RICS (2018) Assessing the impacts of extending permitted development rights to office-to-residential change of use in England
 Prior to 2017 a pub (use class A4) could be converted to a café or restaurant (A3), a betting shop or estate agents’ practice (A2) or a supermarket or convenience store (A1) under PDR. Outside of conservation areas, pubs could also be demolished without permission at 6 weeks’ notice.
 Economies of ale: small pubs close as chains focus on big bars (Nov 2018) Economies of ale: small pubs close as chains focus on big bars
 New evidence from Demos (2020), demonstrates that people in towns are divided with diametrically opposing views on what the future of the places they live should look like post COVID-19. However, critically where heritage is concerned, people are united and they are jointly clear in their message: over 70% want their towns to retain their historic character and not have too many new buildings; 76% want town centres that are less anonymous and with more independent shops and 76% want to attract more traditional High Street type shops. Heritage is a rare uniting factor identified in this research (https://towns.demos.co.uk/).
 The presence of local agglomeration economies explains the persistence of employment centres over time (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00168-019-00957-4)