Shakeup for UK heritage protection

Copyright: David Lawson – first published Property Week May 2007

 The growing furore over climate change has some way to go before matching decades of conflict over a different aspect of conservation: preserving old buildings. But moves are under way to revolutionise one of the most bureaucratic and confusing areas of planning.  The first major reassessment of heritage planning for England and Wales since modern development controls were drawn up almost half a century ago aims to simplify a morass of confusing and often contradictory regulation.  Changes could include bringing all historic controls under the umbrella of English Heritage and the Welsh equivalent [Cadw], a public register of ‘heritage assets’ and the right for owners to be consulted - and appeal - about listing.

   Few could object to greater clarity and grass roots involvement.  New laws are also several years away because of a crowded parliamentary agenda.  But like any fundamental change, time bombs could be ticking below the surface and there are only a few weeks to dig them out. The government has set a deadline at the end of this month [MAY] for views on its White Paper Heritage Protection for the 21st Century.  It would also be wrong to assume history plays a minor part in the bulk of development.  Almost a third of planning applications involve heritage assets, according to Roger Mascall, of planning consultant DPP.

  Most major developers are up to speed on planned changes, he says.  ‘But a large portion of the sector still seeks to deal with such matters either late in the day or without the necessary specialist advice.’ Conservation areas alone cover vast swathes of towns and cities, often sweeping through the very areas where development pressure is most intense. Even minor alteration work can trigger months of negotiations and delay.  In London, for instance, it is hard to find anywhere in the City or West End which does not require special approval. A new threat emerged recently when Land Securities’ planned WalkieTalkie tower was claimed to threaten the Tower of London World Heritage Site status.

  Transfer of responsibility for listing to EH is a logical step and could speed up the system, says Mascall. The question is whether money will be available to do the job properly when public spending is being squeezed. This will only get worse in the run up to the general election.  Greater public consultation will make the process more open but stretch the timescale, despite the fact that the reforms are meant to speed decision making.  Interim protection orders to prevent owners sending in bulldozers overnight could mean a building is frozen while designation is considered then challenged by appeal. Mascall calls for close regulation to ensure the process is not used by objectors to frustrate development.

  Certificates of Immunity (CoI) could offset uncertainty by preventing last-minute listing. The White Paper says these could apply without needing to make a planning application, which has led to absurdities in the past such as applying for things such as flagpoles to qualify.Heritage Partnership Agreements (HPA), providing early agreement about what may require consent within a management framework for a building, could reduce the need for large numbers of individual applications. Pioneering agreements under existing legislation such as the listed Barbican complex in London have proved their worth but it remains to be seen how they are taken up, as they need a strong commitment from owners and local planners.

 Conservation areas and World Heritage Sites will be given extra protection, leading to increased call-in of schemes for ministerial decisions [already seen with Land Securities’ Walkie Talkie tower] and greater use of buffer zones to restrict major development, says Mascall.  While this will be important for parts of the City of London, protection for conservation areas and listed buildings will have far more impact on everyday development around the UK.  The government is trying to regain control after a landmark ruling in the Lords in the late Nineties that partial demolition within conservation areas did not require consent.  Listed Buildings are finally to become part of a unified system. But success will depend on removing inconsistency in how such judgements are made – perhaps the biggest cause of conflict with developers.  

   Local Resources will be vital to underpin the revolution. Yet beyond the provision of new guidance and mechanisms for information dissemination, little is said about resources, says Mascall. Some local authorities don’t even have a conservation officer.  

Key Proposals

Designation based on national criteria for historic buildings and monuments

Merger of planning and conservation area consent

Unification under English Heritage and Cadw

Public register of historic sites and conservation areas

Protection for buildings while designation is considered

Partnership Agreements for large sites

Greater local demolition control