Last month, we reported on the launch of Westminster Sustainable City Charter – a joint pledge between Westminster City Council and Westminster Property Association to reduce the operational environmental impact of buildings and contribute to a net zero carbon City of Westminster by 2040.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) has also set out an ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2040, ten years ahead of the Government’s target. Kensington and Chelsea, of course, is a borough rich in heritage with a vast number of listed buildings. The Council has recognised the obvious challenge of enhancing the environmental performance of listed buildings while preserving those qualities that make those buildings special.

To this end RBKC is currently consulting on a Draft Listed Building Consent Order to allow the installation of solar panels on all Grade II listed buildings and some Grade II* listed buildings in the Borough. In effect, this means that listed building consent will be granted for the installation of solar panels, subject to various details to be approved on a case by case basis. 

On the face of it, this is an extraordinarily forward-thinking application of rarely used Listed Building Consent Orders. Interestingly, the draft order itself recognizes that harm to listed buildings may arise from such works. The order states that any harm would be ‘balanced’ by the public benefit of reducing carbon emissions and making greater use of renewable energy. 

Owners of listed buildings in the Borough will recognise this as a very welcome development in the manner in which public benefits are considered. 

The practical challenge for owners is that the order will require owners to apply for the approval of certain details to ensure that the installation of plant minimizes the impact of the equipment on the special interest of the building. Therefore this still requires a submission of details to RBKC and the application of their judgement as to the acceptability of those details. In the absence of specific design guidance from RBKC, it remains to be seen how the Council will consider applications in reality, especially where those details may be considered to constitute some element of harm.

Solar panels are a technology with a long payback. It remains to be seen what the take up is and what the impact will be in terms of carbon emissions. How will the Council monitor the success of the order? 

Importantly, how will it sit beside a general trend towards a demand for active cooling in private houses? Does this foreshadow a move towards planning policies that attempt to restrict the use of air conditioning plant, in the way that the London Borough of Camden’s do? The Council’s emerging local plan documents suggest a stricter application of the Mayor of London’s cooling hierarchy for all developments, suggesting that this is a matter that they are taking seriously. 

Montagu Evans welcomes this practical step taken by the Borough and we hope to be able to help applicants realise their objectives to improve the sustainability of their estates or individual buildings and we will be responding to RBKC’s initiative to encourage them to provide a clear practical framework for us to do so.