Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Historic Houses Association

The Historic Houses Association represents Britain’s historic houses, castles and gardens in private ownership. The HHA has 1,500 member properties throughout the UK of which about a third are open to the public. The HHA estimates that approximately two-thirds of the built heritage is privately owned and maintained. Between them HHA members represent, collectively, one of the greatest “ownership” of listed buildings in Britain: both I and II* properties as well as of Grade II properties, many being ancillary buildings.

The HHA welcomes 14 million visitors each year and one in five of all HHA properties offers educational visits and there are more than 300,000 such visits annually.

The beneficial effect that public visiting to these places has on the wider economy is estimated at an additional £1.6 billion. Over 30,000 people are directly employed by HHA members or are employed in businesses in their grounds.

The costs of maintaining Britain’s private houses, castles and gardens are significant and expenditure by private owners in looking after England’s historic environment is substantial. Owners spend some £3.5 billion annually on maintenance and conservation (Valuing our Heritage 2007: National Trust, English Heritage, Heritage Link, Historic Houses Association, Heritage Lottery Fund). However, the backlog of urgent repairs at HHA member houses alone totals £390 million an increase of £130 million, 50% on the figure six years earlier (£260 million). Only about 1% of the costs of major repairs to privately owned historic houses are funded by public grant, so ensuring the economic viability of historic houses is of great importance.

Summary of Key Issues

The NPPF lacks key areas of detail on the historic environment.

As a consequence it is open to interpretation and may be inconsistently implemented.

Sustainable development is not adequately defined.

Core historic environment planning principles on proportionality and economic viability are inadequately articulated.

The impact of the Localism Bill and the NPPF does not appear to be properly taken into account.

The national importance of the historic environment and the presumption in favour of its conservation are not fully expressed.

Background

(a)Britain’s historic houses are an important resource, which benefits the entire nation. For example, 80% of international visitors say that their principal reason for visiting Britain is connected to heritage and culture.

(b)Historic houses provide character, distinctiveness and a sense of place and help create pride in where people live. 87% of British people think that the historic environment plays an important part in the cultural life of the country. An aspect of British historic house estates that gives them unique cultural and environmental value is the entity of historic house, contents, garden/park and surrounding land. In many cases much of the contents remain in the house, and many houses have retained their parks and surrounding land, often with particular environmental and amenity value. This entity helps to create a rural landscape that is not only attractive visually and environmentally, but which is also valued as a place to live and work. For example, Chatsworth features in local authority and other campaigns as a reason to re-locate business to the East Midlands. Changes in the planning system should not be allowed to adversely affect the ability of historic house estate owners and managers to make this contribution to tourism and inward investment.

(c)In its responses to the consultation on Planning Policy Statement 5 on the historic environment last year, the HHA made clear its preference for a fast, effective, transparent planning system which is responsive to the needs of local communities.

(d)The NPPF should strike a balance in respect of heritage. It must ensure that the settings of heritage property are adequately recognised and safeguarded. At the same time, it must enable the owners of historic properties to adapt them sympathetically, for example to facilitate an economic, to secure their conservation for the future. PPS 5, the planning guidance on heritage, achieved that balance. As this response sets out, that balance has not yet been achieved by the draft NPPF.

Responses to Select Committee Questions

1. Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

The NPPF does not provide adequate definition of key terms contained within it. The idea of sustainable development, for example, is central to the Framework document. However, there is no definition of it within the glossary or within the main body of the text. The tests for loss are vague, because there is no attempt to define terms such as “substantial harm”, “viable” or “medium term” in the glossary, or to suggest the scope for local authorities in defining these.

The NPPF is intended to be concise, but there is a significant danger that the quest for brevity will result in the omission of key guidance for local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others. As a consequence, the Historic Environment section is extremely short and the Framework is vague on subjects such as Conservations Areas. Paragraph 187 states that a “positive contribution” to a Conservation Area is a test in relation to loss, without ever attempting to define what might constitute a “positive contribution”. The problem is that such phrases are open to wide interpretation without the provision of adequate benchmarks.

Given this, the Practice Guide, drawn up by English Heritage, will be of particular importance, because it will offer more detailed guidance to local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate on the historic environment, where the NPPF is too broad or too vague. The Practice Guide must, therefore, be given a prominence and authority appropriate to its importance.

2. Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

If there is to be a presumption in favour of sustainable development then there should be a very clear definition of what this means. For example, the Bruntland definition of sustainable development, that is, development in the present that does not compromise the future, should be included in the glossary.

The issue of sustainable development is of particular importance to the historic environment, because historic buildings frequently depend upon their capacity to evolve and adapt in order to ensure their economic viability and thus their conservation. However, other forms of development which might be considered sustainable in themselves may negatively affect the settings of historic buildings, for example and threaten their future existence. The HHA supports the view that the strong bias in favour of granting permission may, on occasion, result in decisions being made without adequate consideration being given to the historic environment.

At the same time it is important that small-scale economic growth which is appropriately located and designed is encouraged. Where possible this should be undertaken in a strategic way to avoid damaging piecemeal development.

3. Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

While there are core planning principles which are appropriately expressed within the NPPF, they are not always fully articulated. Within the historic environment section, for example, the core principle of significance is referred to on a number of occasions, but without fully emphasising its central importance. Once again, this may be remedied by giving appropriate status to the Practice Guide, which provides clearer guidance on the principle of significance. However, the section of the NPPF which deals with the historic environment is insufficient in relation to other related principles.

Paragraph 183 suggests that “the more important the asset, the greater the weight [attached to its conservation] should be”. However, it is important that there should be a clear statement that the level of evidence required in support of an application should be proportionate to the significance of the property concerned, such as that in PPS 5: “the level of detail should be proportionate to the importance of the heritage asset and no more than is sufficient to understand the potential impact of the proposal on the significance of the heritage asset”.

It is also regrettable that the presumption in favour of conservation is not unambiguously articulated, although paragraph 183 does state that “when considering the impact of a proposed development on a designated heritage asset, considerable importance and weight should be given to its conservation”. This phrase could be expanded to state a clear presumption in favour of conservation.

Another core principle in respect of the historic environment, which is articulated within PPS 5, is that “wherever possible historic assets are put to an appropriate and viable use”. Once again, this needs to be stated explicitly in the historic environment section of the NPPF.

4. Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear? Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?

Given the timing of the NPPF and the simultaneous passage of the Localism Bill, there is concern about the magnitude of change to the planning system and as a consequence, the capacity of local authorities to manage every aspect of it adequately. In particular, it is not yet clear from the Localism Bill whether Neighbourhood Development Orders override local authority Article 4 directions. This is only one example of the unknown effects of the NPPF and the Localism Bill coming in to force at around the same time. The NPPF should be part of an integrated approach to the management of change in the historic environment. The HHA agrees with the Heritage Alliance that a clearly stated, holistic, integrated relationship between planning policy and across departments is essential, but is not yet embodied in the NPPF as it stands.

5. Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to cooperate”, provide a sufficient basis for larger-than-local strategic planning?

The key issue, as stated in the answer to 4, above, is the effect in practice of the NPPF in the context of the provisions of the Localism Bill. The NPPF will be insufficient if the Localism Bill results in amendments to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and abolishes the normal statutory duties of local authorities, when drawing up NDOs, to take into account the preservation, enhancement and settings of listed buildings and Conservation Areas. Thereby, an NDO could effectively abolish heritage protection in an area, and the fact that it is doing so would not have to be taken into account when it was being drafted and adopted.

The positive intentions of the NPPF may be lost if “larger-than-local strategic planning” is undermined by the Localism Bill. While, under the terms of the Localism Bill, a draft NDO must be examined by an Independent Examiner, who must decide that it is “appropriate with regard to national policy” to make the NDO, this safeguard seems inadequate. The Independent Examiner must be given sufficient powers to protect historic buildings, which are one of this country’s most important assets.

6. Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence-based?

Where the policies contained within the NPPF are based upon previous planning guidance, such as PPG 15 and 16 and PPS 5, they may be considered part of an evolution based upon tried and tested planning practice. This is another reason for ensuring that, as far as possible, the beneficial policies within PPS 5 are incorporated within the NPPF.

However, in certain key areas, there is an absence of hard evidence. In particular, the effect on strategic planning policies incorporated in the NPPF remains uncertain and little or no evidence is provided in relation to this. A similar observation may be made about the presumption in favour of “sustainable development”, which is of great significance, but is not even defined within the Framework document.

8 September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011