Planning and local heritage: New guidelines that all local historians should know about

The Government has issued proposed new guidelines* for councils and developers about how they can use 'historic assets… for imaginative new developments across the country'. The consultation period end on 30 October 2009. The new 'integrated' planning policy document claims to be about 'protecting the historic environment, archaeological sites, historic areas, buildings and landscapes' whilst, at the same time, sending a clear message to councils and planners 'that the historic environment should be seen as an asset, not an obstacle to development'.

St Pancras Station

St Pancras Station, a pleasing blend of the old and the new.

The new policy, which is accompanied by detailed guidance from English Heritage, says councils need to monitor all their historic assets, including listed buildings, conservation areas, scheduled monuments, archaeological sites and historic landscapes. The Government believes that 'some historic buildings from theatres to churches are decaying with age and require quick decisions to secure their future instead of being left in place unmaintained'.

'Historic assets' are seen as being hugely important to local people and for the tourist industry and that there is a need to conserve and protect them for future generations. One of the best ways to help ensure that this happens is to include historic assets in local plans for regenerating towns and cities. The press release we received cites St Pancras Station as a prime example of where the old station was transformed into a modern transport hub whilst retaining Gilbert Scott’s original building. 'We need to be protecting what is significant about a place while making the most of its potential and this means quick and imaginative planning decisions. Our new policy sets out that the historic environment is an asset not an obstacle to development' says the Government.

Statue of John Betjeman

What would John Betjeman have to say about the new 'historic heritage' planning guidelines if he was still with us? His statue in St Pancras Station.

Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, says 'The new guidelines are a major milestone in the Government’s Heritage Protection Reform (and) I am delighted that this key element is now available for discussion. A key shift in the Planning Policy Statement is that it encourages everyone to first understand what is significant about a particular building and site before implementing change. This should cut the number of poorly thought-through applications and ensure that our heritage can be made fit for a wide range of purposes without damaging what makes it special. Fundamentally, it will help owners of heritage sites and buildings to make better applications, assist local authorities in making robust decisions and ensure that future generations are handed on a heritage that is attractive, useful and relevant'.

Local historians in England need to be aware of this policy document and should consider asking the Government to ensure that local history societies are automatically included in any consultation process about local planning applications in their area. Another change which can have a significant impact on historic buildings and townscapes is the fact that all councils in England now have to have a 'Local Development Framework' (this has replaced the old style 'Local Plan'). Councils in conurbations also have to work in partnership and compile what are called 'aligned core strategies' which feed into a 'regional spatial strategy'. Taken together, all these plans set long-term planning agendas for local councils and will determine what happens in neighbourhoods and townships. This is all part of a Government plan to speed up local planning decisions in favour of developers and the public bodies they often work in 'partnership' with. In practice local heritage is rarely mentioned and these new guidelines will only work if local historians and their societies taken an active interest in local heritage issues.

Robert Howard

The main points of the new planning guidelines about historic assets:

  • Ensures there is a focus on understanding what is significant about a building, site or landscape so that it becomes easier to determine the impact of the proposed change. Uses the ‘values’ approach of English Heritage’s Conservation Principles as an underlying philosophy to inform decision-making.
  • Urges councils to monitor all their historic assets. For example, local authorities will be urged to create publicly-accessible Historic Environment Records which developers will be expected to consult so that they can take into account the historic environment impacts of their applications.
  • Supports constructive conservation. It encourages active exploitation of the heritage as an asset rather than seeing it as a potential barrier to development and introduces clearer policies on setting and design ― which are frequently the source of the most contentious cases involving the historic environment.
  • Councils must weigh carefully any loss of enhancement of the asset and its setting against the benefits of the application such as increased production of energy from low or zero-carbon sources. The greater the negative impact on the significance of the asset, the greater the benefits that will be needed to justify approval.
  • Deals with all types of heritage in a single document. It brings in a new, integrated approach to the historic environment and ‘heritage assets’, moving beyond the outdated distinction between buildings and archaeology.
  • Greater emphasis on pre-application planning and discussion. Councils and developers should learn about the significance of affected heritage assets before designs are drawn up ― the more they understand the asset, the greater the chances of a successful application.
  • Maintains the same level of protection for the historic environment as the current PPGs 15 and 16, expresses the policy much more succinctly making it easier for councils to use (number of pages has been cut from over 100 to around 13).
  • Provides greater clarity on key topics e.g. archaeological interest, conservation areas and their preservation and enhancement, World Heritage Sites, conflicts with other planning priorities and recording.

*The new Planning Policy Statement (PPS) will replace Planning Policy Guidance Notes 15 (Planning and the Historic Environment, September 1994) and 16 (Archaeology and Planning, November 1990). The consultation paper can be viewed online at:

19 August 2009

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