Among all the other changes announced before Christmas concerning the new NPPF, Chapter 16: Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment changed very little, if not at all. Perhaps the Government's view was that ‘if it ain't broke - don't fix it', or, there were enough changes in the recent Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to keep the sector on its toes.
With the attention away from Chapter 16, an update at Chapter 14: Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change, Flooding, and Coastal Change, caught my attention.
This update included the introduction of a new paragraph, Para.164, which gives ‘significant weight’ to the importance of energy efficiency through the adaption of existing buildings and, importantly, has a direct implication/correlation with the provisions concerning the historic built environment. It states, in full:
In determining planning applications, local planning authorities should give significant weight to the need to support energy efficiency and low-carbon heating improvements to existing buildings, both domestic and non-domestic (including through the installation of heat pumps and solar panels where these do not already benefit from permitted development rights). Where the proposals would affect conservation areas, listed buildings or other relevant designated heritage assets, local planning authorities should also apply the policies set out in Chapter 16 of this Framework.
There has, until now, been a friction between legislation, planning policy (both at a national and local level) and our client’s aspirations for positive, meaningful change and the adaption of buildings to ensure they remain fit for a net-zero future.
Whilst the NPPF has continued to afford ‘great weight’ to the conservation of designated heritage assets (e.g. listed buildings and conservation areas) – with the more important the asset, the greater the weight that should be placed upon it – there has previously been no clear ‘counterbalance’ for sustainability enhancements at a national policy level.
Locally, by contrast, there have been drives to adopt a balanced view in decision-making (i.e. Westminster’s adoption of their ‘Climate Emergency Action Plan’, or the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s forward-thinking Listed Building Consent Order – which gives consent for solar panels on most Grade II and Grade II* listed buildings), though the differing approaches across regions/ boroughs and a lack of national guidance has led to inconsistencies and confusion within the sector.
In particular, this inherent policy dilemma about how to balance carbon reduction against the great weight given to the preservation to listed buildings has resulted in challenging discussions with key stakeholders, particularly when talking about multiple small gains which may accumulate over a larger area.
Whilst there remain the inherent statutory provisions in the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, requiring special regard to the desirability of preserving listed buildings and their settings, the inclusion of the new national provision in policy takes an important step forward in recognising the importance of improved energy efficiency within the existing built environment. It also has the potential to open the door to proposals which may have previously been found to be unacceptable, unable to be counterweighted against the great weight provisions at Para. 205 (previously Para. 199) - though such opportunities and areas of possibility need further exploration.
Given this is new guidance, the value of weight to be given in the balance of energy efficiency is currently unclear, and the weight placed on such proposals will become increasingly apparent as proposals make their way through the decision-making process.
What is clear now, however, is that Councils will be required to balance and treat favourably proposals that increase energy efficiency and low-carbon heating improvements to existing buildings, including the introduction of air-sourced heat pumps, solar panels, and other mechanisms available to the sector, providing they are justified in the context of the provisions (both statutorily and nationally) concerning the historic built environment.
The change in national policy is well-timed. Last week, the Government issued a new press release promoting a wide-ranging review aiming to tackle the barriers in making historic homes more energy efficient whilst protecting their ‘beauty’, and Historic England recently closed out their consultation draft on ‘Climate Change and Historic Building Adaption’. These publications stand to review national development management policies to ensure greater certainty and consistency of decision-making, as well as develop clear advice/guidance to homeowners and, indeed, professionals on the acceptability of alterations to historic assets concerning energy performance.
Clearly, the historic built environment is on a drive to promote a sustainable future, though it is anticipated that such changes will take time to filter through to decision-making, and we anticipate debate with local planning authorities on the acceptability of such proposals at every level. How different organisations will handle such changes in the short term also remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is helpful, both from a practical and global perspective, to see that sustainability measures will now have an elevated position in the planning balance.