Planning policy and fiscal drivers

Brian Waters MA DipArch DipTP RIBA MRTPI ACArch FRSA
Director of Planning, HTA, Chairman London Planning & Development Forum, Editor Planning in London magazine, President ACA, Principal BWCP.

Nowhere is the potential conflict between planning and the economic reuse of buildings more pronounced than with the historic environment: in conservation areas and with listed buildings. So I will confine myself to planning and will focus on policy as it affects regeneration and finding new life for listed buildings.

Last year’s Planning white paper is of general relevance and the Heritage white paper is of more particular relevance.

The key documents to which I would refer you are these:

  • White paper: Heritage Protection For The 21st Century (
  • EH’s consultation paper Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance
  • an article by Robert Adam in April 2006 Planning in London (
  • EH and the BPF’s 2005 Heritage Matters
  •  PPG15 Planning and the Historic Environment

Planning white paper: Planning for a sustainable future May 2007
In addition and published the other day is the DCLG consultation paper on PPS4: Planning for sustainable economic development.

You will find links to these on my website with this paper: > Guidance >ECOBUILD seminar.

The contribution which the historic environment can make to regeneration is increasingly being recognised and its value to sustainability is emerging. Taken together with the recent white paper Heritage Protection For The 21st Century and new thinking by English Heritage (EH) suggests that a more constructive approach to development where it involves listed buildings and conservation areas is emerging.

EH’s consultation paper Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance introduces a values-based approach intended to help decision-makers to take account of the diverse ways in which people value the historic environment as part of their cultural and natural heritage. Justifiable decisions about change in the historic environment depend upon understanding who values a place and why they do so, leading to a clear statement of its significance and with it the ability to understand the impact of change on that significance. “Every reasonable effort should be made to eliminate or minimise adverse impacts on significant places”, says EH. “Ultimately, however, it may be necessary to balance the public benefit of the proposed change against the harm to the place. If so, the weight given to heritage values should be proportionate to the significance of the place and the impact of the change upon it”.

The new approach is summed up: “Proposed changes which would materially harm the heritage values of a significant place should be unacceptable unless all the following criteria are met:

  • the changes are demonstrably necessary either to make the place economically sustainable, or to meet another public policy objective;
  •  it is either not reasonably practicable to avoid the harm by achieving the conflicting objective in a different way, or the harm has been reduced to the minimum consistent with achieving that objective;
  •  it has been demonstrated to the competent authority that the public benefit decisively outweighs the unavoidable harm to the values of the place, considering its comparative significance, the impact on that significance, and the benefits to the place itself and/or the wider community or society as a whole”.

Architect Robert Adam has called for a re-examination of the core principles of the culture of conservation in planning which he says is long overdue. “Conservation has come to have a deadening effect on the historical environment with often bizarre consequences for the continuing life of buildings”, he argues in Planning in London, April 2006.

The proportion of listed buildings to all buildings has increased in 30 years from 1 in 140 to 1 in 40, a total of half a million, and conservation areas from four to over 8,000. This says Adam has created a new breed of administrators and the dominant culture has changed from architect conservation officers to specialists from an archaeological and historical culture which has led to an overriding concern with historic authenticity. “This” he says “is like the study of wildlife through taxidermy”.

Adam notes that Conservation Principles recognises that our attitudes to our historic environment are in a constant state of change: “the historic environment reflects the evolving knowledge, beliefs and traditions of multiple communities” and “changes in the historic environment as a whole are inevitable”, adding “judgements about values are necessarily specific to the time they are made”. This explicit recognition, he suggests, could have far reaching consequences in a system that relies on a default position of preservation.

There may be heated debate about the criteria for the justification for ‘irreversible intervention’ – which means permanent change or destruction – but the fact that the principle is formally recognised is important, say Adam.

Conservation Principles seeks to relate conservation to sustainability. It states that the use of the historic environment should “not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same”. How you decide that without a return to simple preservation is an interesting and unanswerable question says Adam. “The simple fact is that the effective reuse and avoidance of destruction of good building stock is fundamentally sustainable”.

The refreshing new direction is also seen in the EH and British Property Federation document Heritage Works of 2005. Its headline messages include:

  • Critical to the success of regeneration is finding a viable economic use that can support initial refurbishment, provide the owner or developer with a reasonable return on their investment and which generates sufficient income to ensure the long-term maintenance of the building fabric and any associated public open spaces
  • In short, the listed buildings consents regime does not prohibit any change, rather it establishes criteria against which ‘acceptable change’ can be assessed
  • The re-use and adaptation of heritage assets is at the heart of sustainable development. Re-using historic buildings contributes to the achievement of sustainable development targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 
  • The impact of successful schemes is felt beyond the boundaries of the heritage asset itself and can boost the economy of the whole town or city
  • Design development: Work to listed buildings requires sensitivity and care, and the works proposals must be drawn up in careful consultation with statutory authorities and advisory bodies. Undertake thorough surveys of the building and make realistic assessments of its capacity to be adapted for the proposed use.

The Heritage white paper aims to review and simplify the regulatory regime, merging planning and conservation area applications, integrating the classification of monuments and listed buildings and improving listing procedures now in the hands of EH rather than DCMS.

Conservation Areas
A word about Conservation Areas. The key measure here has long been that new development has to ‘preserve or enhance’ [not both, note]. Increasingly however local planning authorities [LPAs] resist demolition in a CA. PPG15 Planning and the Historic Environment suggests that the tests which apply to the demolition of a listed building should apply in a CA. Some LPAs take this literally – which would make the listing of any building in a CA rather meaningless.

LPAs are meant to prepare character assessments when they designate a CA, but often they have not. They are also meant to review their designations regularly – which they rarely do. However, a fine example was set last year when the City of London shrunk and undesignated several CAs. In my view CAs have proliferated to the point of devaluation. Where they haven’t been justified by a credible and up to date character assessment within the last five years they should automatically lose their status. But not everyone would agree with me!

Listed building consent
20. Listed building consent (LBC) is required for any works for the demolition of a listed building, and for most works relating to its alteration or extension. The House of Lords ‘Shimizu’ case* has established that the ‘demolition’ of a building means ‘the clearing of its site prior to rebuilding’. As for ‘works for alteration and extension’, these only require consent if they are ‘in any manner which would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest’.

The ruling therefore makes it clear that there are some works of alteration that do require consent, and some that do not. However, it is also clear that, for works to require consent, they have to have an ‘affect (on) the special character’ – which may be either beneficial or adverse. Note that the Heritage white paper aims to reverse the impact of the Shimizu decision.

The determination of precisely what does or does not need consent in any case will be a matter of fact and degree; but it may be noted that the determining factor is their impact on ‘the special character of the building’. The ‘reversibility of the works’ is considered to be relevant to an assessment of their effect on the character of the building, and thus for the need for consent.

The carrying out of repairs, internal or external, may need LBC, but “only where they affect the character of the building as a building of special architectural or historic interest”.

It should also be noted that, if works do not affect the character of the listed building, consent is not required. Such judgements may be made by the architect and should be based on expert knowledge or advice. If they are proved wrong the consequences are serious and criminal offences may be the result.

PPG 15 (3.5) states that “Generally the best way of securing the upkeep of historic buildings and areas is to keep them in active use. For the great majority this must mean economically viable uses if they are to survive…it requires balancing the economic viability…against the effect of any changes they entail in the special architectural and historic interest of the building” (3.9) “Policies for development and Listed Building controls should recognise the need for flexibility …to secure a building’s survival..”

PPG15 (3.10) continues: “Achieving a proper balance between the special interest of a Listed building and proposals for alterations or extensions is demanding and should always be based on specialist expertise; but it is rarely impossible, if reasonable flexibility and imagination are shown by all parties involved. Thus, a better solution may be possible if a local authority is prepared to apply normal development control policies flexibly; or if an applicant is willing to exploit unorthodox spaces rather than set standardised requirements.” (3.15).

Advice given in PPG15 and by SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and upheld by ICOMOS is that designs “should not try to confuse the history of a building”: what is old should be preserved, but what is new should be seen to be new – although it should not seek to detract from the original fabric. Extensive alterations undertaken during the building’s history generally do not try to mimic the “period, style and detailing of the original building” but were in a style that was felt to be more appropriate at the time.

A key to determining appropriateness of new interventions is their ‘reversibility’ and any perceived ‘serious detriment’ that they might have on those parts of the historic fabric that might be considered of ‘special interest’. Therefore, a modern ‘kit of parts’ type of construction that both allows specifically for minimal adaptation and visual intrusion on historic fabric and may be reversible would seem most appropriate.

Being an architect as well as a planner I am going to run through an example where I have applied the new approach. The listed building and planning applications only went to Westminster last Autumn and they have received a mixed reception: unusually a lot of public support but resistance from archaeological conservation officers who haven’t bought into the emerging approach!

A new future for No.1 Marylebone Road, Sir John Soane’s Holy Trinity church of 1828.
[I will let the slides talk here: click to download .ppt>The full story is on the consultation website at >Current Stuff.]
For this talk as a .pdf, click here> .pdf

*House of Lords – Shimizu (U.K.) Ltd. v. Westminster City Council
Judgments – Shimizu (U.K.) Ltd. v. Westminster City Council. HOUSE OF LORDS. Lord Browne-Wilkinson Lord Griffiths … SHIMIZU (U.K.) LIMITED (APPELLANTS) … pa/ld199697/ldjudgmt/jd970206/shimiz01.htm

Key documents and links:

• White paper: Heritage Protection For The 21st Century

• EH’s consultation paper Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance

• an article by Robert Adam in April 2006 Planning in London

• EH and the BPF’s 2005 Heritage Matters

• PPG15 Planning and the Historic Environment

• Planning white paper: Planning for a sustainable future May 2007

Consultation Paper on new Planning Policy Statement 4: Planning for Sustainable Economic Development