Our Response to ‘Planning for the Future’

Our response to the Government’s Planning White Paper is summarised below. It covers three issues: zoning and good design; public engagement; heritage and carbon. Our response to Proposal 17 on how planning reform could tackle the challenge of climate change in the historic environment is then developed in detail with a recommendation to make carbon reduction in heritage buildings a legal requirement.

Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s Response to the Planning White Paper

We welcome the core focus on speed of decision-making, quality of design and public participation. Fundamentally, the planning process in England needs to deliver much more of all three.

1. Zoning and design

The proposals which emerge from this consultation need to make clear how zoning allows for both protection and renewal of metropolitan urban centres. At present, the designations seem potentially well suited to support higher volume housebuilding in suburban and rural areas but do not reflect the demands of granular, mixed-use development for inner city neighbourhoods. Housing is crucial but still only one component of well-planned towns and cities. 

It is hard to see a simple three tier system working well in places such as the City of Westminster or the London Borough of Southwark, for example, and further clarification is required on how the designations would be applied in a complex urban environment.

In places such as Westminster, conservation areas cover much of the borough and these would presumably have a ‘protect’ designation, even though many may be capable of delivering significant growth through the kind of sensitive reuse and redevelopment that Grosvenor has often applied in Belgravia and Mayfair on sites such as Eccleston Yards.

To address this type of situation, it could make more sense to have sub-categories within the protect designation, or a separate designation for areas where protective policy designations apply but where there is scope for careful intensification, subject to design criteria. This would allow local authorities to differentiate between protected areas which are highly constrained and others which are less sensitive or where there are clearly identifiable opportunities for growth.

We are supportive of a national design code to establish the high-level principles of good placemaking. This should be applied at a local level through individual design codes developed for major new settlements with meaningful input from local communities. This will ensure that each code reflects local circumstance and the unique identity of each place. We are unclear how a detailed design code could be set and applied effectively at the level of the Local Plan.

Design codes are particularly important on large schemes where there could be multiple delivery partners because they help to ensure a comprehensive, joined-up approach. In our experience, on sites such as Trumpington Meadows on the edge of Cambridge or Barton Park in Oxfordshire, it is better for them to be developed by the applicant in consultation with the local community and planning authority. On large sites that will be built out over an extended period, there also needs to be flexibility for the code to evolve over time.

We also believe there must be space for outstanding architecture. Design cannot be reduced to a set of rules. Nor is it a question of style. That is part of why architects matter, not just to do the technical drawings but to bring some inspiration and produce a signature civic building that fits well in its context or a ground-breaking (rule-breaking) house type, for example. Everything was once new – and often not universally welcomed - and it is the interplay of historic and contemporary that makes many places special and distinctive.  

2. Public engagement in planning

Regarding public engagement, we support the Government’s call for more and much wider participation in planning. We believe that this must take place both at the level of strategic spatial planning and on individual sites. It should not be restricted solely to the development of Local Plans. In reality, people care (and can contribute the best insights) about a site at the end of their street, not about the high-level plan for their borough.

Grosvenor’s approach to public engagement is defined in a community charter called Positive Space, launched in June 2020. This sets out four principles which help us create a dialogue where the trade-offs involved in change are openly debated, more voices are heard, and everyone works more productively together.

It includes a commitment to broaden the conversation with specific groups, including young people, and we warmly welcome the Government’s call in the White Paper to increase engagement with this age group. Grosvenor has worked over the last year with a group of 30 councils across the political spectrum, developers, designers and youth organisation to produce a national youth engagement toolkit: www.voiceopportunitypower.com. This is a free practical guide designed to help professionals offer young people aged 11-18 much more influence over the way that places are made and managed.

This toolkit draws on new research suggesting that young people are currently locked out of planning (‘I live here too’, Grosvenor 2020). 89% of 16-18-year olds say they have never been asked their opinion about the future of their neighbourhood and only 8% have taken part in a public consultation. But 82% say they actively want to be involved. So, we believe the Government should make it clear in national policy that meaningful youth engagement is a routine part of doing planning properly. Not only is this a requirement of the Equality Act (2010) and Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It creates better places that work for everyone.

3. Heritage protection and carbon reduction

Planning reform also presents us with a crucial opportunity to address the challenge of climate change in the historic environment. 23% of our domestic building stock pre-dates 1919. We have 500,000 listed buildings in this country and 7,000 conservation areas. Yet the current policy framework is incoherent on the issue of energy efficiency in heritage buildings and incompatible with the Government’s zero carbon objectives.

We therefore strongly welcome the intent set out in Proposal 17 of the White Paper to create a system that can both protect and intelligently adapt historic buildings in the context of a climate emergency.  As a first step, planning law (including policy), building regulations and the guidance from Historic England should be streamlined, making guidance and good practice visual and definitive, so that practitioners can apply it quickly and consistently on the ground.

However, this will not go far enough. Grosvenor believes the Government should give much greater legal weight to changes to heritage buildings which are aimed at carbon reduction and energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency is itself a public benefit and historic buildings are some of the most well-loved prestigious buildings in the country with a cultural value far beyond their actual numbers. If carbon saving and climate adaptation can take place in these buildings, it will have a major social impact on our values and expectations. Streamlining the system will help but only real changes in the legal framework will create genuine impetus for change.

In conclusion  

Taken as a whole, the proposed reforms shift much of the planning burden onto poorly resourced local authorities, in a situation where many planning departments already struggle to cope with the weight and complexity of demands placed upon them.

The appointment of a chief officer for design and placemaking could provide welcome leadership. But ultimately, councils must have sufficient resource. The system needs great planners who play an active role in place-shaping and have access to climate expertise within local authorities.

If that means higher fees which cover the full costs of processing an application we would support this, provided it is fair and proportionate and delivers the speed and quality of decision-making that property companies have a right to expect from the system and have not always got from a PPA. 

Heritage protection & Carbon reduction: a detailed response to Proposal 17

Proposal 17 of the White Paper makes recommendations for the reform of planning law, planning policy and guidance, and building regulations, so that the challenges of climate change can be better addressed in the historic environment. It says:

We […] want to ensure our historic buildings play a central part in the renewal of our cities, towns and villages. Many will need to be adapted to changing uses and to respond to new challenges, such as mitigating and adapting to climate change. We particularly want to see more historical buildings have the right energy efficiency measures to support our zero carbon objectives. Key to this will be ensuring the planning consent framework is sufficiently responsive to sympathetic changes, and timely and informed decisions are made.

The aspiration here for our historic building stock to pay a full part in helping avert climate change is very welcome. Climate change must be at the forefront of decision making in planning, given that 40% of greenhouse emissions are linked to the built environment[1].

We know that historic buildings retained and adapted with the right energy efficiency measures perform well compared to new buildings. This is because adaptation measures generally involve lower embodied carbon than new construction, and because many historic buildings have very good thermal mass and were built with excellent natural ventilation and for minimal heat loss[2]. When taking a whole-lifecycle view of carbon emission, historic buildings can outperform new construction.[3]

Some say that historic buildings are not a big enough part of the problem. In fact, 500,000 buildings in England are statutorily listed and there are many thousands more heritage buildings in the country’s 7,000 conservation areas. 23% of our domestic building stock pre-dates 1919[4] making it the oldest in Europe.

As some of the most well-loved prestigious buildings in the country, historic buildings also have a cultural value beyond their actual numbers. If carbon saving and climate adaptation becomes a priority for these buildings, this will have a wider social impact on our values and expectations. People want to live and work in old buildings, but they also see he climate emergency as a pressing reason for the right adaptation measures to be taken wherever possible to maximise energy efficiency and reduce carbon.

Despite this, efforts to adapt and improve the energy efficiency and performance of heritage buildings are often frustrated. This is because planning policy is not explicit enough on the imperative to mitigate the impact of climate change through work to existing buildings, and because policy, guidance and regulations are inconsistent, and inconsistently applied. This leads to complex planning negotiations and variable outcomes. The current planning process to enable carbon reduction in historic buildings is expensive, time consuming, and confusing even for specialists in the field.

1. What happens today?

1.1       Current practice

There are two interconnected issues which prevent carbon reduction measures in the historic environment from happening at pace: firstly, a culture of seeing physical interventions to historic fabric as harmful and unjustified, and secondly, a lack of impetus and consistency in policy, guidance and regulations.

Alterations to historic buildings to combat climate change are often perceived as inherently harmful to heritage significance by decision-makers, and that such changes are sometimes not understood as a public benefit comparable with, for example, disability access. This sometimes blocks even the most carefully conceived adaptations to historic buildings.

When it comes to applying policy, guidance, and regulations, we know that different authorities give different consents: double-glazing in historic window frames is acceptable to one local authority but not another. This is because guidance allows an individual assessment of each planning or listed building consent application even where proposals are identical and the relative impact on the building is comparable. Because policy and guidance is open to interpretation, the results are varied, and appropriate desirable changes are often prevented.

In practice, adapting and improving historic buildings holistically, so they perform better but are not physically harmed, is complex. It requires a sophisticated understanding of their behaviour and performance over time. This coupled with a lengthy complex consent regime, and the lack of any express requirements to seek improvements, often results in many building owners choosing to avoid such changes.

1.2       Current law, policy, guidance, and regulations

The Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 stipulates a requirement on decision-makers for special regard and attention to the desirability of preserving listed buildings, their setting, and conservation areas (paragraphs 16, 66 and 72). This has an impact on decision-making where alterations, such as climate change adaptation, might not preserve or enhance every aspect of a historic building, and the Act is silent on this.

The NPPF (2019) addresses climate change and the historic environment as separate themes (chapters 14 and 16) with little cross-reference. Public benefits, required to balance ‘harm’ to heritage significance (which may occur when upgrading a building to reduce carbon emissions), include specific mention of a building’s ‘optimum viable use’ (paragraph 196), but the public benefit of climate change adaptation is only mentioned in an introductory chapter (paragraph 8).  This apparent disconnect between heritage and climate change furthers a perception that the public benefits of climate change adaptation is not greater than, for example, the economic benefit of adding an extension to a building.

Regional and local plans, aligned with the policies in the NPPF, have a tendency to ask for carbon reduction upgrades for new and major development. This is the case with new Draft London Plan where new development and major refurbishment fall under emission targets (Policy S12), but historic buildings are not substantially covered under this policy. This leads to planning decisions where no or minimal upgrades to historic buildings can be considered plan-compliant and acceptable.

Historic England guidance on the subject of historic buildings and climate change is detailed and valuable. However, it is also presented in a multitude of different documents, is word-heavy, and not as accessible to homeowners, builders, and time-stretched local authority officers as it should be. Whilst HE guidance is fundamental to understanding how historic buildings function and what alterations might harm their fabric or significance, it is currently disjointed, hard to access, and does not link back clearly to the NPPF’s allowance for ‘harm’ set against public benefits. 

Local authority guidance (SPDs and SPGs) varies considerably between authorities. Most SPDs and SPGs fail to address the importance of climate change and appropriate adaptation for historic buildings. In particular, the vast majority of conservation area appraisals and audits are out-dated (and only infrequently reviewed) and the content is presented in a restrictive rather than instructive manner.

Many SPDs and SPGs have no up-to-date guidance on fast-evolving carbon saving measures such as thermal insulation technology or production of renewable energy. Consequently, local authorities sometimes refuse consent because they are unsure if proposals are appropriate or may consent proposals that are harmful and inefficient.

Part L1B and L2B of the Building Regulations provide a get-out clause for historic buildings. This applies to listed buildings, conservation area buildings, and other heritage assets (in essence, all historic buildings). This often prevents many carbon reduction measures to historic buildings where conservation officers insist that such works are not appropriate.

In summary, ambiguity and inconsistency in planning law, policy, guidance and the building regulations lead to mixed outcomes. They include at best careful and effective adaptation of historic buildings, and at worst, no changes or even very damaging changes where the restrictions of the planning framework are either over-interpreted or ignored, or where alterations to the fabric can actually make the energy-efficiency worse.

In the context of a climate emergency, this situation has to change.

2. So what could be done?

There are a number of practical ways forward. They will have varying impacts on historic buildings and carbon targets and could be implemented stand-alone or (some) in combination. Six options are set out below.

A         Stay as we are & adapt carefully

Retain the various caveats and get-out clauses in policy and regulations. Continue to adapt historic buildings carefully as per the current Historic England guidance, assessing each building on a case-by-case basis, and requiring individual justifications and consents. This will protect all or most heritage significance as a rule. But it will not favour faster or more consistent permissions, nor more impactful, pioneering solutions. As a consequence, it is likely that the carbon saving impact from ongoing use of historic buildings will be very limited.

B1        Streamline law, policy & guidance  

Make specific changes to planning law; including national, regional and local planning policy; and to guidance by Historic England and local authorities, so it is clear and consistent, removing blanket get-out clauses. Include historic buildings in carbon reduction policies and ensure that such changes are given clear and compelling weight as material considerations when balancing the proposals against any harm to the significance of the heritage assets and to their settings. This could mean that alterations which have low or no impact on heritage significance are identified, with a presumption in favour of approval. The heritage asset consenting regime would remain on a case-by-case basis, but there would be the potential for more consistent decision-making on a range of measures where the potential for ‘harm’ to heritage is low (for example if they are reversible or affect areas of lesser significance).

B2        Simplify & visualise guidance

In tandem, make the guidance supporting the policies, especially that issued by Historic England, much easier to access, visual and definitive, so that this helps building owners to make informed choices, and so that decision-making can become more consistent. Consider an interactive model approach, and/ or a system based on drawings and graphics rather than words alone, to reach a wider audience and be more impactful.

C          Make carbon reduction in historic buildings a legal duty

Amend national and regional/local planning policy to explicitly state that energy efficiency is a public benefit and introduce policy at each plan level setting out that renewable energy generation and energy efficiency measures are now positive requirements for all buildings, including historic buildings.

D1       A presumption in favour of impactful measures

Include in national and lower-tier planning policy a presumption in favour of expert-approved measures for energy generation and emissions reduction in the historic environment. Such work could include building-type specific measures which are proven to cause no (or minimal) harm to the historic buildings, including their significance and setting, and blanket presumptions in favour of fully reversible energy creation measures.

This option requires that existing research and expertise is brought together to set a framework, and to capitalise on the currently dispersed knowledge of what can work in the historic environment, including laboratory-style testing of certain measures per building type.

D2       Exemptions for non-designated heritage assets from consent regime

Expand permitted development rights for conservation area buildings and other non-designated heritage assets (NDH) where measures that are proven to be energy efficient and not harmful to a building’s physical fabric are allowed without planning permission.

Through an amended prior approval process, this could extend to such works even where they might otherwise be considered to cause ‘less-than-substantial harm’ to the conservation area (such as sensitive double or secondary glazing), so long as these measures are shown to be both carbon effective and not harmful to the long-term survival of the fabric of the building. This would enable a significant number of heritage buildings to be fitted with carbon reduction and energy generation measures without lengthy consent requirements.

3.        What do we think should change?

It is clear that current practice in the field of climate change adaptation in historic buildings is inefficient and leads to mixed results. There can be little doubt that, if things continue as they are, very little improvement will be achieved. Option A to ‘continue as we are’ would provide only minimal climatic improvements to the historic environment and therefore cannot be the right answer in the context of the recognised climate change emergency.

Option B, to streamline law, policy, and guidance, would without doubt remove some confusion and inconsistency from decision making. But it would retain the reactive, case-by-case approach to planning where often limited heritage harm is likely to trump carbon reduction, as is often the case now. Grosvenor believes that stronger intervention should be brought forward.

Our recommendation is that in the face of a climate emergency there should be explicit statutory and policy requirements for carbon reduction measures in the historic environment.

This (option C) would mean that applications for certain changes to historic buildings should include carbon reduction as a matter of course, and that building owners would need to plan ahead for such improvements.

At the same time, the Government (including through the NPPF) should actively encourage Heritage Partnership Agreements to expedite agreed carbon reduction measures across larger estates and land holdings; and guidance for carbon reduction in historic buildings must be made more accessible, visual and definitive to help bring forward the most effective and least harmful measures.

We believe there is also merit in exploring new permitted development rights for proven energy efficiency measures to heritage buildings and buildings in conservation areas (option D). We appreciate that heritage value could be lost if this were handled poorly, and that it would need careful planning. However, much of England’s historic building stock follows patterns and typologies which do make it suitable for group treatment.

4.        Who needs to do what?

4.1 Changes to Legislation

Government should introduce changes to relevant legislation which make clear that carbon reduction and energy efficiency objectives apply to the whole of the built environment, including heritage buildings. This could be achieved through amendments to section 19(2)(a) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.


NPPF (and the PPG)
The new or amended NPPF should include specific policies for carbon reduction in relation to all existing buildings, including heritage assets. It should be explicit that carbon reduction and energy efficiency measures are an important public benefit that can be levied against harm to heritage significance. Should the existing NPPF policies be retained, this could be through an addition to paragraph 196 (shown underlined):

Where a development proposal will lead to less than substantial harm to the significance of a designated heritage asset, this harm should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal including, where appropriate, securing its optimum viable use or through providing effective carbon reduction or energy efficiency measures.

Additionally, the NPPF should include a policy to support and encourage Heritage Partnership Agreements which include carbon reduction works, and state specifically that HPAs should be set up for all suitable buildings and estates as soon as possible. This can be further supported by additional express guidance in the PPG with links to appropriate Historic England guidance and support.

Building Regulations
Part L of the Building Regulations could be redrafted for existing buildings to align with new planning policy and law, and state that: ‘energy efficiency requirements apply to all historic buildings, unless they would cause substantial harm to their heritage significance, as defined in the NPPF’.

In addition, MHCLG could consider whether a form of permitted development for a nationally agreed list of carbon reduction measures across specific building types should be brought forward to allow speedier and more impactful interventions.

4.3 Regional and local planning authorities

Regional and local plans would need to ensure that their policies are aligned with those in the NPPF and the law, set out above.

4.4 Historic England

To support the new policy and legal requirements set out above, applicants for building projects and building owners need easily accessible and more definitive guidance. While this is not part of the remit of the White Paper, there is a requirement for such guidance to be visual, digestible and clear, and it would directly support the PPG.

This should be a key priority for Historic England as the government’s advisor on the historic environment. The wealth of information, guidance and expertise they hold is a crucial resource for us all. 

[2] Cf. C Alan Short: The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture. Routledge 2017.

[3] Historic England: Heritage Counts 2019 - Re-Use and Recycle to Reduce Carbon

[4] https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/valuing-carbon-pre-1919-residential-buildings/

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