Planning matters blog | Lichfields

Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

Change in the historic environment – implications of the amended PPG
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.   Assessing impact 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  


Heritage in the North East: can it be the solution rather than a problem?
Historic buildings and sites are often seen as a burden, with high levels of risk and financial liability attached. But, in the North East, could they create opportunities and solutions, rather than problems? Lichfields recently completed a pioneering study for Historic England looking at the economic, environmental and social returns offered by historic sites in London which have been declared as ‘at risk’. The study found that investing in such heritage assets can result in numerous benefits which go far beyond just the conservation of historic fabric, such as successful place making and regeneration, job creation, the enhancement of social facilities and vastly altered local perceptions. The development industry in the North East is focussed on delivering the homes we need to address the housing crisis, creating jobs and promoting economic growth. But the economic context in which we are working is quite different from that of our colleagues in London. Is it possible for us to be able to use heritage assets in the same way, to realise wider economic and social benefits, and with heritage as the catalyst rather than the goal? Is it a different picture? Historic England compiles a register of designated heritage assets which are ‘at risk’ on an annual basis. Nationally, it includes scheduled monuments, listed buildings at Grades I and II*, places of worship listed at any grade, registered parks and gardens, registered battlefields, protected wreck sites and conservation areas. In London, the list is more extensive as it also covers Grade II listed buildings. The graph below compares the types of heritage assets on the register in London and the North East. Most of the ‘at risk’ heritage assets in London (67%) are Grade II listed buildings, a figure which is to be expected given that 90% of listed buildings (both nationally and in London) have this grade. In the North East, scheduled monuments represent 58% of all ‘at risk’ assets, by far the majority; this category includes cairns, the remains of settlements, mining legacy features and rock art. These are features where the solution to their heritage-related needs is unlikely to be in the form of the new uses and occupation like other types of buildings and structures. Figure 1 Proportion of assets on Heritage at Risk Register in each category Source: Historic England with Lichfields analysis Closer similarities between London and the North East appear when Grade II listed buildings and scheduled monuments are omitted from both areas (see the graph below), while just focusing on assets in urban areas in the North East also shows a similar picture of Heritage at Risk to London. Figure 2 Proportion of assets on Heritage at Risk Register in each category shown Source: Historic England with Lichfields analysis This data shows that, given the parallels that can be drawn between the London and North East heritage at risk registers, there is potential for some of the benefits identified within the London report to be similarly achieved in the North East. It also raises the question of whether Grade II listed buildings should be included on registers outside London, given the number which are probably at risk. Perhaps when considering how best to use heritage as a catalyst for economic growth, development and regeneration, a looser definition of ‘at risk’ should be applied, not just focussing just on those assets included on the Historic England register but any heritage asset - designated or undesignated - which could fall within the definition of ‘at risk’ and which, with investment, could deliver wider benefits. Opportunities for the development industry The map below shows a correlation between assets on the North East Heritage at Risk Register and deprivation in urban areas. The picture in more rural areas, such as Northumberland and Durham, is less clear. There may be several reasons for this pattern, including that output areas are larger in size and, as a result, areas of high and low deprivation may be averaged out. Also, most assets ‘at risk’ in rural areas are scheduled monuments which are generally at risk not because of lack of investment but due to other threats, such as agricultural practices. What is clear though is that particularly in urban areas in the North East, there is great potential for the regeneration and wider social benefits recognised in the London report to be achieved. Some of the best opportunities for regeneration and wider social benefits may occur either when grant funding is available to close the viability gap between costs and the end value or financial return or, perhaps more importantly, when other benefits of investment, such as delivering economic, social or environmental improvements in line with ambitions for particular areas, can be prioritised over initial financial returns. For assets in public sector ownership, the requirement that land should not be disposed of for less than ‘best consideration’ is potentially a complicating factor and could result in missed opportunities if proposals for reuse and associated development are not explained well in relation to their consistency with planning policy, the asset’s current state of repair and its future existence and other potential non-financial and wider regeneration benefits and positive impacts. Discussions with key individuals in the development and heritage sectors in the North East has also highlighted that to secure private investment, and perhaps reduce the need for grant funding which itself can be off-putting to developers, there is also a need for more to be done to ‘de-risk’ a heritage asset by providing greater certainty to future investors about the features which are most important and where there may, or may not, be scope for change. There is a clear role here for Historic England’s Enhanced Listing service, and/ or a detailed development brief, supported by a heritage assessment, to understand the special interest and development potential of the asset. There are also potentially important roles for cross-funding and enabling development, which could help meet wider development needs and, through Section 106 contributions, support the conservation of heritage assets which would otherwise not receive investment without grant support. In such cases, heritage at risk may open up new sites for development which would have otherwise not been policy-compliant. The historic environment in the North East, and in particular Heritage at Risk, presents an undervalued and underused opportunity to stimulate economic growth and help meet development needs, while also delivering wider social and environmental benefits. Future work The London Heritage at Risk study has identified a number of benefits of investing in Heritage at Risk and there is good reason to think that, despite the differences between London and the North East, the findings will hold true for other urban areas. A number of potential solutions and opportunities presented by Heritage at Risk in the North East have been identified within this blog; a better understanding of the opportunities presented by investment in these heritage assets is of course still required, especially due to the different economic contexts and disparities between land values and investment returns in the regions compared with London. But the importance of the wider social and environmental benefits arising from such investment should not be understated or underestimated when compared with economic outputs which are easier to quantify. A tool to assess, quantify and share these would clearly be of huge benefit. Watch this space…!