White Paper Series: Permitted Detraction - what does the red tape bonfire mean for the country’s protected buildings and areas?

24 September 2020

One of the dangers of relaxing regulations is that the opportunity to assess the impact on setting, which is rarely fixed and often loosely defined, could be lost.

Niall Hanrahan Associate London

‘Change’ is something that often terrifies the conventional heritage enthusiast. Sometimes this is well justified but change in the planning system, as a whole, has often been kept fairly subtle, or at least it has until now.
Recent legislative changes to allow new permitted development rights, changes to the use classes order, and the recently published white paper on the Government’s ambitions for a zonal - sorry “more flexible” -  planning system, have been the height of conversation in planning over the past few weeks. But what do they mean for our historic environment?
For works to listed buildings, the answer is very straightforward. The status quo of heritage assessments, battles amongst conservation experts on subjective matters, harm vs benefit, and the need for listed building consent is unlikely to change.
For conservation areas, similarly, current protection, enshrined in the 1990 Act under Paragraph 72, will prevail. That said, the relaxation of use classes, with typical high street uses lost to more private office or residential uses could see pressure for significant change to historic or architectural features such as shopfronts. Generally though, things shouldn’t be too different.
That’s the easy bit over with. So, what about when development potentially affects the setting of a heritage asset? The Court of Appeal confirmed in the Barnwell Manor Wind Energy Ltd v East Northampton District Council [2014] EWCA Civ 137 (Royal Courts of Justice, 2014) ruling that the setting of listed buildings should be “given considerable importance and weight” when the decision maker carries out the balancing exercise. Setting also comes into play where conservation areas, and even non-designated heritage assets are close to proposed development.
One of the dangers of relaxing regulations is that the opportunity to assess the impact on setting, which is rarely fixed and often loosely defined, could be lost. The effect of this could be an accumulation of harm to the setting of heritage assets, which, without the need for proportionate assessments results in a silent creep of destruction to the unique character of important locations.
To take one recent case as an example, the much discussed (for all the wrong reasons!) proposals at the Westferry Printworks on the Isle of Dogs, was initially dismissed, in part, for its harmful impact on the setting of some of London’s most important cultural landmarks. The land to which the proposals sat upon had no particular architectural of historic interest; however, the scale and design of the development was, in the view of the Appeal Inspector, able to harm the significance of buildings and protected areas a number of miles away. Settings are difficult to map, and their extent will always be a point of debate and subjectivity. There is, however, a concern that the relaxation of planning controls could lead to issues with wider townscape analysis.
Whilst the Westferry Printworks is a large-scale example, there will undoubtedly be ‘every day’ impacts on a smaller scale as a result of planning reform and relaxation. Something that we all need to consider during this consultation period on the White Paper. Otherwise, we may not even realise until it is too late.