In a paper focussed on ‘build, build, build’, ‘heritage’ may not be centre stage. But the document’s emphasis on beauty, local character, on ‘inheritance and a sense of place’ means that its presence is constantly sensed, raising important questions for those of us involved in this specialist area – as so very often, the devil is in the detail.
In his ministerial foreword, Robert Jenrick sets out the guiding principle: ‘to cherish the past, adorn the present and build for the future’. This is no bulldozer manifesto, and its emphasis on sustainability is welcome. Helping historic buildings adapt to climate change is explicitly cited as a goal.
The White Paper sets out a limited agenda for revising the heritage protection system. ‘The existing statutory protections of listed building consent and conservation area status have worked well’ it concludes, so we shouldn’t expect a root and branch reform any time soon.
There are three proposed categories for land in local plans: growth area, renewal areas and protected areas. Heritage, alongside the natural environment, defines the third of these. It includes the cores of our towns and cities, and of assets across the land. Making sure that the growth and renewal areas are scanned early on for heritage issues is likely to become even more important if planning controls are to be relaxed in them, so up-front assessment will become even more important.
Planning for the Future
is strong on certainty, and it wants to see ‘a more predictable system’. Heritage creates character and identity; sometimes it possesses beauty too.
But it is a profoundly subjective topic, and it can be a wild card.
Helping to identify what gives large categories of buildings their significance will be enormously important – and it would discourage capricious control.
What constitutes ‘heritage’ doesn’t stand still either, and it can cover the downright ugly and atypical: think brutalism, currently much in vogue.
For owners of heritage assets, clarity for your options will go on being an issue even inside the proposed protected areas. Some of the lists of historic buildings in some local authority districts still date from the 1970s: perhaps Historic England’s anticipated review of listing will propose a strategy for this. Conservation areas are meant to be regularly reviewed and appraisals updated: but many miss out on such maintenance.
Heritage can thus be the opposite of the beautiful and locally distinctive buildings which the White Paper seeks to encourage in new developments.
It can, though unlock solutions, and define that sense of place. The re-used gas holders at King’s Cross are illustrated twice in the White Paper: embodying the creative recycling of the features which help to give the area its landmark quality. Re-use is hip.
Another heritage-specific proposal here has been discussed before: the idea of accredited agents, able to secure faster consents for non-controversial proposals. This seems wholly sensible in these times of lean local authority service provision.
So, greater certainty is admirable in principle, but providing this for heritage – surely one of the most subjective realms in planning – will go on being quite a challenge. If the government wants clarity it needs to ensure that systems of identifying what matters are established, area by area, and kept up to date. Without this, the property industry will always be on the back foot.