Housing and Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by Historic England (HPB 98)

Introduction

1. Historic England is the Government’s statutory adviser on all matters relating to the historic environment in England. We are a non-departmental public body established under the National Heritage Act 1983 and sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). We champion and protect England’s historic places, providing expert advice to local planning authorities, developers, owners and communities to help ensure our historic environment is properly understood, enjoyed and cared for.

2. Further to our appearance at the Committee’s oral evidence session on Tuesday 17 November, we welcome the opportunity to submit written evidence on the following clauses, which we believe may have most impact on the conservation of the historic environment: specifically, clauses 102 (Permission in Principle) and 103 (Brownfield Register), in Part 6 of the Bill.

Summary

3. We believe that the historic environment is a strong contributor to sustainable development, but have some concerns about the way in which the emerging proposals in c lauses 102 (Permission in Principle ) and 103 (Brownfield Register) are to be implemented. In response to these concerns, we were given an assurance by the Housing and Planning Minister that  ‘heritage assets will retain the same level of protection as they have now’, but we remain keen to understand how this is proposed to work in practice, and to ensure that the detailed implementation is fully discussed during the Bill’s passage through Parliament.  

Clause 102: Permission in Principle

4. The provisions in the Bill are very broad, and, although the Government’s ‘current intentions’ to confine their application are set out in the Bill’s explanatory memorandum, there remain a number of areas where we would welcome clarification, ideally on the face of the Bill.

5. Ensuring that any changes to the planning process strike the right balance between protecting the historic environment, and allowing it to play its part in supporting growth, requires that the historic environment continues to be properly considered in planning decisions. Our overarching concern – based on the current form of the Bill – is that proper planning judgements will not be made at the key stages in the process (namely inclusion of sites within the register, permission in principle, and then technical details consent), and with sufficient reference to evidence, policy, law, and consultation responses: the result could be that sites may gain permission without the requisite issues being properly considered, and harm done to the histo ric environment in consequence.

6. To conserve listed buildings and other historic sites ‘so that they can be enjoyed for their contribution to the quality of life of this and future generations’ (NPPF), Local Planning Authorities need to know not just where they are but what matters about them – their heritage significance. Before deciding if change to a historic place or its setting is appropriate, they then also need to understand what the impact of new development may be. This may involve the assessment of the detailed design of the new building. We wish to ensure that the drafting of the Bill gives local authorities sufficient information about impacts to give them confidence to use the permission in principle approach. What would give local authorities confidence is if they knew the impact could be properly assessed throughout.

7. By way of illustration, permission in principle should only be granted on the basis of certainty that at least one form of acceptable scheme can be delivered, in line with policy, evidence, etc., rather than a potentially harmful but unspecified scheme effectively being given consent. For instance, matters of design cannot be left wholly until the technical details consent stage, as design can have an impact on buried archaeological remains, capacity, and setting.

8. Related concerns are that:

· Local communities may not retain an appropriate degree of influence over the form of development in their areas under these proposals.

· The Bill itself does not confirm the Government’s current intention to limit the direct application route for permission in principle to proposals for minor housing development (i.e. fewer than 10 units). Any future application of the powers in the Bill to sites above this threshold will risk undermining the plan-led system, a system which enables local authorities and communities to develop and deliver a strategic vision for sustainable development in their areas, and provides certainty to developers .

· The proposed system places greater emphasis on local planning authority evidence-gathering and decision-making , at a time when both information resources (in the form of Historic Environment Records) and local authority staffing levels are under increasing pressure. There is no reference to additional resources being made available to support the successful implementation of th ese new, additional mechanisms.

9. We would like to see changes to the Bill which:

· Clarify the way in which the new consent regime will work in practice (if not through the Bill, the draft secondary legislation and guidance which are needed to ‘fill in the blanks’ of the proposed system should be published in sufficient time to inform parliamentary discussions on the high-level provisions in the Bill, and allow proper scrutiny ).

· Make it clear that ‘permission in principle’ is not something that the local authority is in any circumstances obliged to grant if it does not consider it to be appropriate.

· Confirm that the direct application route for permission in principle will be limited to proposals for minor housing development (i.e. fewer than 10 units) .


Clause 103: Brownfield Register

10. As noted above, t he provisions in the Bill are very broad, and, although the Government’s ‘current intentions’ to confine their application are set out in the Bill’s explanatory memorandum, there remain a number of areas where we would welcome clarification, ideally on the face of the Bill.

11. As sites on the register may themselves proceed directly to permission in principle, it is clearly essential that the mechanism for putting sites on the register is robust , and includes proper planning judgements with sufficient reference to evidence, policy, l aw, and consultation responses . This is particularly important as giving permission in principle to sites on ‘part 2’ of the register will effectively give an important degree of consent to a large number of sites at once: without adequate processes in place, there is likely to be significantly less understanding of the impact of development on these sites than there would be when dealing with a normal planning application or allocation, because investigation of the significance of heritage assets may be less in-depth, and the understanding of the impact will be slight as no detailed proposals are there to be considered.

12. If the register preparation process is not sufficiently robust (in terms of what LPAs are required to look at, the resources they have to undertake the work, and the availability of the necessary information, e.g. via H istoric Environment Records ), there is a risk that sites could get onto part 2 of the register – and thus obtain permission in principle – inappropriately. This could result in:

· Heritage assets being damaged by development proposals which have been agreed in principle (subsequent technical details consent applications can only then be refused on matters of detail, not the principle which has already been agreed).

· Positive opportunities to enhance the heritage (as per the NPPF) being missed.

13. The explanatory memorandum accompanying the Bill suggests that the criteria for sites to be included in the register may include a requirement that a site ‘must not be affected by physical or environmental constraints that cannot be mitigated’: clarity is needed as to what exactly this means, with particular regard to the historic environment. Historic England is keen to ensure that the historic environment is not seen as an obstacle to development, and thus that sites with or near heritage assets are not automatically discounted from the register and the new consent regime ; instead, the historic environment should be properly considered within the planning process. Specifically, we would like to understand how heritage assets (themselves, and their setting) will be considered in the formulation of the register: not exposed to potential harm through a lack of assessment, and not ignored, either (which would unhelpfully and inaccurately send the message that heritage is an obstacle to growth).

14. Related concerns are, again, that:

· Local communities may not retain an appropriate degree of influence over the form of development in their areas under these proposals.

· Register creation frontloads the evidence gathering and assessment elements of the planning process, and places the burden squarely on LPAs at a time when both information resources (in the form of Historic Environment Records) and local authority staffing levels are under increasing pressure. There is no reference to additional resources being made available to support the successful implementation of these new, additional mechanisms.

· If large sites are given permission in principle through identification on the register, this risks undermining the plan-led system, and thus the delivery of strategies for sustainable development which have been prepared considering all the needs of an area, based on evidence and the views of the local community.

15. We would like to see changes to the Bill which:

· Clarify the way in which the register will work in practice (if not through the Bill, the draft secondary legislation and guidance which are needed to ‘fill in the blanks’ of the proposed system should be published in sufficient time to inform parliamentary discussions on the high-level provisions in the Bill, and allow proper scrutiny).

November 2015

Prepared 1st December 2015