Cambridge City Council has recently unanimously approved plans to install nearly 500 solar panels across the whole roof of the King’s College Chapel. Listed as Grade I, the chapel is a masterpiece of perpendicular gothic architecture and is itself a symbol of the city of Cambridge.
The proposals are controversial. Delivering a reduction in the College’s carbon emissions by 1.4%, the Council’s planning officers considered that this was insufficient to outweigh the harm to the special interest of the building. In the context of the ‘great weight’ provision to be given to preserving the special interest of the building, officers felt that the carbon emissions were a ‘marginal benefit’ which could feasibly be delivered elsewhere with less impact. Members of the Planning Committee, however, felt differently.
A RECURRING DILEMMA
I recently wrote about the tensionsbetween preserving our special buildings and the challenges in adapting them to contribute to sustainability objectives. The King’s College case encapsulates this essential dilemma:
“… the NPPF gives great weight to the preservation of the special interest of a listed building but doesn’t accord an equivalent weight to carbon emissions reductions. While decision-makers can consider whether the benefits of a proposal outweigh the harm, is this type of proposal destined to lose out where the carbon gains might be relatively small at a site level?”
Historic England also objected to the King’s College proposal, and their consultation response illustrates the framework friction perfectly:
“…while promoting the provision of additional renewable energy generation, the [National Planning Policy] Framework recognises constraints and encourages the identification of suitable areas for a such generation – presumably ones in which such constraints either do not exist or are minimal.”
The implication here is that there should be no or minimal harm to the special interest of a building when balancing the benefits of renewable energy generation on listed buildings. This is a different approach to that of one London Borough, which has taken the view that even small carbon reduction benefits should be taken as a benefit in their contribution to a cumulative whole. The Committee Members in Cambridge thought this too and were willing to overturn an officer recommendation in the face of an objection from Historic England. This underlines, in a very high-profile way, the potential for inconsistency in decisions between different geographical areas despite similar schemes.
NEW NPPF IMPLICATIONS
potentially ‘rebalances’ this debate through the addition of a new paragraph (161):
“To support energy efficiency improvements, significant weight should be given to the need to support energy efficiency improvements through the adaptation of existing buildings, particularly large non-domestic buildings, to improve their energy performance (including through installation of heat pumps and solar panels where these do not already benefit from permitted development rights).”
The use of the words ‘significant weight’ is an interesting one, and if the NPPF is altered in this way, it will clearly have a bearing on proposals such as those at King’s College. While the statutory provision in the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Art 1990 requiring special regard to the desirability of preserving listed buildings will remain, this move seems like a small step towards recognising that the benefits of renewable energy generation should be given particular weight when considering the potential harm caused to the interest of listed buildings.
What is clear is that until there is clear guidance on the weight to be given to renewable energy benefits, inconsistent decisions are likely to persist, increasing uncertainty and slowing down the delivery of such projects.