Heritage heresy: will future policy destroy the past?

Will dramatic reforms to England’s planning system jumpstart housebuilding? Or are heritage experts right to worry that the changes will wipe out historic assets and the country’s climate goals?


  • Stephen Cousins

01 February 2021

England suffers from a long-term and persistent undersupply of housing, which has resulted in increasingly expensive homes and a generational divide between those who can afford to own property and those who can’t.

Some of the blame must be placed at the door of the complex and cumbersome planning system, developed and expanded since the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947

Local plans, intended to help councils deliver more homes, currently take a lengthy seven years to be agreed – it takes five years to get a spade in the ground. This provides around 187,000 new homes per year across England, well below the 300,000 targeted by the UK government.

Rather than tweak and update existing planning laws, prime minister Boris Johnson has proposed a comprehensive overhaul intended to, in his own words, “level the foundations and build, from the ground up” a new planning system for England. “One that is simpler, clearer and quicker to navigate.” 

The sweeping changes are described in the Planning for the Future white paper, which ended consultation in October 2020. It comes alongside other new and proposed changes to existing regulations, conceived to make it easier to redevelop buildings and land, and change use without planning permission.

Professionals and organisations in the heritage sector are largely supportive of efforts to streamline planning, but many have expressed concern that the new rules will allow historic buildings to suffer at the hands of unscrupulous developers.


English heritage on the brink

Every year Historic England publishes a list of the most at-risk heritage assets in the country. In 2020, 186 entries were removed from the Heritage at Risk register for positive reasons, but another 216 were added. Throughout this article, we take a look at five of the most vulnerable begging for a new lease of life.

1. Harwich Redoubt, Essex – The grade II*-listed circular fort was built in 1808–1810 as part of the Martello Tower chain of defences against a possible Napoleonic invasion. The structure was later used by the military during the Second World War and then by Civil defence for atomic exercises until their disbandment. The Harwich Society is currently overseeing restoration works. Image: Historic England Archive


Falling through the cracks

They say plans to classify land into three areas of growth, renewal and protection underestimates the sheer volume of historic buildings in English towns and cities. They worry that many could fall through the cracks. Others have voiced concerns that extending permission in principle could lead to an increase in demolition, with implications for the UK’s net-zero-carbon agenda.

Rather than simplify processes, the reforms may put a heavier burden on conservation officers in councils and heritage organisations already stretched to their limits. 

Dr Sean O’Reilly, director of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC), the professional body for built and historic environment conservation specialists, argues: “The reforms will increase pressure, both in terms of managing the consent process and the statutory planning process. There are very ambitious targets in terms of the speed at which local plans have to be renewed and how often. Organisations are already very understaffed, so if this is going to be a smoother planning process, you're going to need the skills and knowledge in place to support it.”

Planning for the Future contains 24 individual proposals spread across three pillars, intended to “streamline and modernise the planning process, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed”.

Details of the specific impact on heritage buildings and how they will be protected, is relatively scant. The government does acknowledge that the current statutory protections, of listed building consent and conservation area status, “have worked well” and it aims to build on those set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.


2. Madeira Terrace, Brighton – The most striking feature of Brighton's eastern seafront is a fine example of 19th-century engineering featuring 805 metres of cast iron arches. Structural stability is now a serious concern, the site has been closed off to the public since 2012 and a design team at the council is looking at options for regeneration with input from Historic England. Image: Richard Rutter

“If this is going to be a smoother planning process, you're going to need the skills and knowledge to support it.” Dr Sean O’Reilly, IHBC

Heritage at the heart

In a statement, Christopher Pincher, Minister of State for Housing, told Modus: “The conservation and enhancement of our heritage remains a key objective of the planning system. That is why we are putting local heritage at the heart of our reforms – delivering the high-quality, sustaining and beautiful homes that local areas need.”

Dr Michael Stubbs MRICS, associate lecturer at the School of the Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University, counters: “On balance, the white paper doesn't give any assurances for heritage buildings. Heritage is stuck on its own in one small section and is not seen as something that permeates the whole system.”

A primary focus of the reforms is on the introduction of simplified local plans, produced by local councils, which would place land into one of three categories:
  • “growth” areas suitable for substantial development, where outline approval for certain types of development would be automatically secured;
  • “renewal” areas suitable for some development; and
  • “protected” areas where development is restricted.

The reforms state that local plans should contain “clear rules”, rather than general policies for development, and include design codes as well as site and area-specific requirements. Ministers claim this approach should halve the time to acquire planning permission on larger sites.

The plans must be developed and agreed in 30 months, down from the current seven years, and every area must have a local plan in place, compared with around 50% currently.

Many heritage experts acknowledge the need to simplify local plans, but the three-tiered zoning approach has been criticised due to uncertainty about the potential impacts on historic buildings, which permeate throughout the fabric of towns, cities and countryside and defy easy categorisation.

Stubbs says: “The government talks about conservation areas within ‘protected’ areas, but it doesn't mention listed buildings, which would be peppered liberally across all three areas. The way the legislation might go, permission in principle could be granted by virtue of a development being in a ‘growth’ area even though there are listed buildings worthy of regeneration. We’ve got to think very carefully about how this is screened and scoped, yet the white paper doesn't offer anything on that.”

Historic buildings cover both designated and non-designated assets, and include scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens, battlefields and Unesco World Heritage sites. Failure to take all of these into account could damage how places are shaped and regenerated.

Non-designated heritage, which has no statutory protection, and its integration into wider placemaking is most at risk under the reforms, says Tammy Whitaker, head of regeneration and property at Sheffield City Council. “Non-designated heritage contributes to local distinctiveness and stops places becoming clone towns, but how this will be picked up through design codes and the plan-making process is unclear. Sheffield has a plethora of buildings constructed for the steel trade around the turn of the 20th century that, though not offered statutory protection, are nevertheless an important part of the city's history and cultural identity.”

In the rush to build as many houses as possible, non-designated buildings that can be trickier to convert, could face demolition, she adds.


“Non-designated heritage contributes to local distinctiveness and stops places becoming clone towns.” Tammy Whitaker, Sheffield City Council

3. Dudley Castle, Dudley, West Midlands (and main image) – 2020 marked the 950th anniversary of the picaresque ruin, which is thought to have been a residence for the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. During the English Civil War it was a Royalist garrison and a century later, gutted by a fire, it was left to stand as a romantic ruin. In 1937, a zoo displaying a range of exotic animals was opened within the castle grounds. An ambitious new masterplan for the site includes a strong focus on the repair and conservation. Image: Dudley Castle / Historic England Archive

Wave of demolition

Some heritage organisations have expressed concern that an increase in automatic and outline/in-principle approvals, such as those proposed in growth areas, could lead to a wave of demolition. This is because the impact on historic buildings would be difficult for councils to fully anticipate and assess at plan-making stage.

The issue could be compounded by changes to existing legislation, currently subject to consultation, which aim to extend in-principle permission to cover major housing-led development, not just smaller sites.

Further changes to permitted development rights, introduced in September 2020, enable builders to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes. Although they do not affect listed buildings, or homes built before 1948, they can include homes in conservation areas.

Increasing demolition and subsequent new build, over re-use and re-appropriation, increases embodied carbon related to the material’s manufacture and construction activity. This could threaten the built environment’s contribution to UK climate targets.

“Reading the white paper, you can’t find any strong theme that constructive repurposing or retrofitting is the easiest way to achieve net zero on carbon emissions in many cases. That’s at the very least a severe gap,” says Peter Ruback, chairman of the 20th Century Society.

In its response to the white paper consultation, Historic England commented: “The conservation and repair of historic buildings has a vital role to play in combating climate change. We are keen to work across government to develop policies and fiscal measures to promote the maintenance, repair and adaptation of our historic building stock.”

The reforms, contained in the white paper, promote several top-down standardised approaches to planning. Local plans would be shorter and based on a standard template, proposals would be subject to design codes and developers encouraged to follow set pattern books, all of which have yet to be defined.

To a large extent this approach runs counter to the bottom-up nature of much historic building and area conservation work, which operates on a case-by-case basis with the involvement of local people and local skills. “This is the antithesis of what has continuously proved to be a successful approach to conservation,” said IHBC in its response to the consultation.


4. Ragged School Museum, east London – The Mile End Ragged School, on the Grand Union Canal, was opened in 1877 by Dr Barnardo as a free school for poor children in London’s East End. The building was saved from demolition in the 1980s before being opened as a museum in 1990. A deteriorated roof, structural issues, and damp problems threaten its future as a vital educational resource. Images: Historic England Archive

The diversity of heritage

The diverse and non-standard nature of historic buildings also seems to work against a more formulaic treatment. “It is difficult to see how design codes would work in relation to altering historic buildings, which by their nature are diverse,” explains Joe O’Donnell, director of conservation group the Victorian Society. “We want to work with the government on this and urge it to consult further on more detailed proposals.”

The government wants to apply a leaner approach to democratic involvement in planning decisions and is proposing the roll-out of digitised services that allow people to track and comment on applications through social media and on their phones, “no longer having to rely on notices on streetlamps, or trawl through lengthy PDF documents.”

The current planning system provides two opportunities for public accountability and oversight, one at the creation of a local plan and one at the final consent of a planning application. 

But the reforms propose to squeeze all democratic engagement into the local plan-making stage, which in theory means any objections to a new development, on heritage grounds or otherwise, will have to be voiced and fed-in several years before it is even proposed. 

This places a big burden on local residents to consider all the possible negative heritage impacts of a local plan at one time, says O’Donnell. “Poorer areas are less likely to have civic societies or retired professional people to do this work and so are more likely to have heritage and a sense of place eroded. This is the opposite of the government’s levelling up agenda.”

Conservation advice is critical to help protect the historic environment, yet according to the latest figures from IHBC, specialist conservation provision in local councils has fallen by around half (48.7%) since 2009 and 6% of departments currently have no access to advice.

With many conservation teams already running a skeleton staff, critics of the white paper have questioned how they can meet the needs outlined, such as support development of local plans within a new 30-month deadline and speed up planning approvals.

“It's a massive issue, local authorities have limited conservation staff. Sheffield is a large urban authority but we have very few conservation staff,” says Whitaker. “It's not properly resourced, which makes it very difficult to respond to the volume of work that comes through and give it due consideration.”


Heritage at RiskThomas Plume's Library, Market Hill, Maldon, Essex.Library view from west.

5. Plume Library, Maldon, Essex – The late-17th-century grade I-listed public library is one of the oldest in England and contains more than 7,000 volumes, most from the 16th and 17th centuries. Built on the site of the former church of St Peter,  of which only the 14th-century tower remains, the library’s lath and plaster ceiling is in danger of collapsing. There is evidence of possible structural movement and cracking in various parts of the building. Image: Historic England Archive

“Poorer areas are less likely to have civic societies or retired professionals to consider the possible impact of a local plan … This is the opposite of the government’s levelling up agenda.” Joe O’Donnell, The Victorian Society

Adopting technology

Certain mechanisms could help ease the burden, such as greater reliance on digital technologies, or greater use of listed building consent orders, that can be applied nationally for routine works to similar groups of buildings or structures. 

The government has committed to develop a “comprehensive resources and skills strategy” for the planning sector to support the implementation of its reforms, based on input from local planning authorities, professional bodies and the wider planning sector.

“There is a hint that there will be extra support but again this needs to be much more explicit,” says O’Donnell. “There must be a detailed heritage analysis of places earmarked for development outside the so called ‘protected areas’ before permission in-principle is granted. Local councils quite often simply do not have the resources to do this.”

The devil will be in the detail of how the government ultimately decides to address this issue and the others highlighted in the consultation. Its formal response is expected early in 2021. A holistic and balanced approach will ensure that housing targets are met, while ensuring that England’s famously rich and varied historic buildings are protected for future generations to enjoy.


Historic assets (retro)fit for the future

Sensitively retrofitting old buildings can give them a new lease of life, and help us meet our climate commitments. View our gallery of five recent stand-out conservation projects here.