Much of the focus of the revised Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) has been on green belt, housing and the effective use of land yet there has also been a raft of updates which have implications for the historic environment.
Non-Designated Heritage Assets
PPG previously recognised that there was no requirement for LPAs to prepare a list of non-designated heritage assets, though encouraged them to do so. The revised wording is much stronger. Plan-making bodies, it says:
“should make clear and up to date information on non-designated heritage assets accessible to the public to provide greater clarity and certainty for developers and decision-makers. This includes information on the criteria used to select non-designated heritage assets and information about the location of existing assets”.
LPAs can still also identify non-designated heritage assets through the decision-making process, though rather being encouraged (as it was previously), this should now only be done “in some cases”. The focus instead is now on LPA’s identifying their non-designated heritage assets in advance, rather than at application stage.
PPG also now confirms that “only a minority [of buildings] have enough heritage significance to merit identification as non-designated heritage assets”. This is much stronger than the wording in the previous version and indicates a shift away from non-designated heritage assets sweeping up everything that is old and traditional to a much more selective category.
Realistically it will not be possible for LPAs to capture all non-designated heritage assets within a list. There will always be buildings or structures which, on detailed consideration, appear to be more significant than previously thought. LPA resources are also stretched and lists of assets will require both time and resource. That said, a list of non-designated heritage assets within each authority would help land owners, developers and decision-makers to identify at an early stage whether there are heritage assets which need to be considered as proposals for development and change progress.
Optimum Viable Use
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says that harm to a heritage asset which is categorised as “less than substantial” should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal, including securing its optimum viable use.
Demonstrating that a proposal represents the optimum viable use of a heritage asset is tricky, but the Government has provided some clarification on the issue through its amendments to PPG.
The revised version clarifies that, where there are a range of alternatives uses, the optimum viable use is the use which is both “economically viable” and likely to cause the least harm to the significance of the asset.
We now have clarity though that this option must stack up financially and not simply be an option which is physically capable of being achieved, which is useful. That said, while the wording has shifted, it still confirms that the optimum viable use may not be the use that brings the greatest financial return.
The evidence required to demonstrate that a heritage asset has no viable use has also been updated, though PPG still doesn’t explain how this should then be dealt with in the planning balance. There is no longer a need to demonstrate that the heritage asset is redundant, it no longer needs to be marketed to “all” potential buyers and the prospective purchaser must also now be willing to find a “viable” use for the site, rather than simply finding a new use.
Inspectors are often concerned that insufficient evidence has been provided that the use proposed is in fact the optimum viable use. Often, they feel that alternative uses exist which would represent the optimum viable use of the building but have not been identified or considered by the applicant. Unfortunately, there is still no clarification on how to demonstrate that alternative uses have been considered.
Decision-makers have grappled with the concepts of “substantial harm” and “less than substantial harm” since they were first introduced.
Lichfields draws on a methodology for environmental impact assessment to quantify the effect of proposals on the significance of heritage assets. Consideration is given to the nature (e.g. adverse) and degree (e.g. minor) of the effect. Once this has been established, the harm is then given a category (e.g. less than substantial harm).
Where this intermediate step to quantify harm is not undertaken in the decision-making process, and harm is simply categorised as ‘substantial’ or ‘less than substantial’, it is difficult for a decision-maker to weigh this in the planning balance or carry out their statutory duty. How can a decision-maker know if the benefits outweigh the harm if they don’t know whether that the effect is so slight that its almost neutral or so harmful that its almost substantial?
Much-needed clarification on this has now been provided by government. The revised PPG is clear that ‘less than substantial harm’ and ‘substantial harm’ are simply categories of harm. It confirms that it is no longer enough to simply identify the category of harm; further articulation about where the proposal sits within that category will now also be required.
Some other notable changes
- Where relevant, applicants must now explain how understanding significance and setting has informed the development of the proposals
- Reflecting and enhancing local character and distinctiveness (with regard given to the prevailing styles of design and use of materials in a local area) is now identified as a means of conserving/enhancing heritage assets
- Works to a private dwelling which secure its future are recognised as a public benefit
- Detailed definitions of archaeological, architectural, artistic and historic interest are provided, drawing on those set out in the draft Conservation Principles document published for consultation by Historic England in 2017, though this has not yet been re-issued following consultation and could be subject to change.
- The section on the setting of heritage assets has been updated to reflect case law which has emerged over the last few years