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National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Heritage Assets

The Government has set out its planning policies for the historic environment and our heritage assets in the NPPF(1). It was published in March 2012 and replaced PPS5.

The government published its Planning Practice Guidance in March 2014 and keeps it updated as appropriate. 

Both the NPPF and the Planning Practice Guidance are material considerations in relevant planning applications and in relation to all listed building consents and planning permission for relevant demolition in a conservation area. They do not apply to the consideration of scheduled monument consents but do apply to the consideration of all other permissions for activities that may affect scheduled monuments.

Government objectives and conservation

“The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development” says paragraph 6 of the NPPF. The policies in paragraphs 18 to 219 of the NPPF constitute Government’s view of what sustainable development in England means in practice for the planning system.

There are policies protecting the historic environment throughout the NPPF and a particular section about conserving and enhancing the historic environment at paragraphs 126 to 141 inclusive. 

Sustainable development has three broad roles: economic, social and environmental. The environmental role is “contributing to protecting and enhancing our…historic environment…." amongst other things (paragraph 7). 

These roles should not be undertaken in isolation, because they are mutually dependant. Economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously. The planning system should guide development to sustainable solutions (paragraph 8).

Pursuing sustainable development involves seeking positive improvements in the quality of the historic environment (paragraph 9). Planning should always seek to secure high quality design and should conserve heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance so that they can be enjoyed for their contribution to the quality of life of this and future generations (paragraph 17).

These opening remarks in the NPPF set out the objectives of national planning policy and hence the objectives for local development plan and neighbourhood development plan policies which must accord with it. Consideration of the historic environment and its heritage assets is a principal objective of sustainable development and hence of the NPPF and all development plans that conform with it.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development

At the heart of the NPPF is a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” (paragraph 14). For decisions on planning applications this means taking decisions that accord with the development plan (which should itself accord with the NPPF) without delay.

Where the development plan is absent, silent or out-of-date permission should be granted unless specific policies (such as those protecting heritage assets) indicate development should be restricted, or adverse impacts assessed under the NPPF as a whole would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.

In other words there is a presumption in favour of development provided it is “sustainable development” as defined by the policies in paragraphs 18 to 219 of the NPPF.

Even where the local plan is in conformity with the NPPF, the decision-making policies within the NPPF are still a material consideration in all planning applications (paragraphs 2, 13 and 196).

Heritage-specific policies

Paragraphs 126 to 141 contain the heritage specific policies in the NPPF, but other policies expressly apply to the historic environment also. The overall content is similar in formulation and intent to PPS5, its predecessor.

The objective of the policies is to maintain and manage change to heritage assets in a way that sustains and, where appropriate, enhances its significance (see definition of “conservation (for heritage policy)” in the NPPF glossary). That significance is the value of a heritage asset to this and future generation because of its heritage interest, which may be archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic. This significance may derive not only from its physical presence but also from its setting

In order to make a sound decision a planning authority needs to understand from the applicant the significance of any heritage asset affected (paragraph 128). This may require some investigative work, but the information to be supplied with the application should be proportionate to the asset’s importance and the potential impact. 

When determining applications the authority should take into account the Government objectives as expressed in the overarching definition of sustainable development and particularly (paragraph 131):  

  • the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of all heritage assets (whether designated or not) and putting them to viable uses consistent with their conservation;
  • the positive contribution that conservation of heritage assets can make to sustainable communities, including their economic vitality; and
  • the desirability of new development making a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness. 

Conservation weight

Designated heritage assets are subject to specific policies that require (paragraphs 132 and 139):

  • great weight to be given to their conservation in all decisions;
  • clear and convincing justification for any harm to significance however slight and whether through direct physical impact or by change to the setting;
  • that substantial harm (direct or by change in the setting) to or total loss of Grade II listed buildings and registered parks and gardens is expected to be 'exceptional'; and
  • that substantial harm to or total loss of Grade I or II* listed buildings and registered parks and gardens, protected wreck sites, battlefields, World Heritage Sites, scheduled monuments and undesignated sites of equivalent importance to scheduled monuments is expected to be ‘wholly exceptional’.

Justifying harm

All grades of harm, including total destruction, minor physical harm and harm through change to the setting, can be justified on the grounds of public benefits that outweigh that harm taking account of the ‘great weight’ to be given to conservation and provided the justification is clear and convincing (paragraphs 133 and 134).

Public benefits in this sense will most likely be the fulfilment of one or more of the objectives of sustainable development as set out in the NPPF, provided the benefits will enure for the wider community and not just for private individuals or corporations. 

It is very important to consider if conflict between the provision of such public benefits and heritage conservation is necessary.

The NPPF seeks economic, social and environmental (including historic environmental) gains jointly and simultaneously. The planning system should actively guide development to sustainable solutions. Pursuing sustainable development involves seeking positive improvement in the quality of the built environment. Substaintal harm or loss should be refused unless it is demonstrated that it is necessary to deliver substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm (paragraphs 8, 9 and 133). The public benefits may be achieved with less or no harm by alternative design or location. 

Sometimes harm is necessary to enable change of use of the asset to its optimum viable use. The optimum viable use is either the sole viable use of the asset or, if there is more than one viable use, the use most consistent with its ongoing conservation. Enabling such a change of use can be a public benefit that outweighs the harm done. 

Harm to conservation areas and World Heritage Sites can be caused in any number of ways including through development within their boundary or within their setting, with or without demolition being involved. Their conservation should always be given ‘great weight’ and any harm can only be justified if the application clearly and convincingly shows that the harm will be outweighed by public benefits. Total loss of a whole building or other significant element, such as a square, may amount to substantial or less than substantial harm (paragraph 138). It is more likely to be substantial harm if the building is of a type that makes the area worthy of its conservation area designation. 

Total loss of the asset or substantial harm may alternatively be justified if all of the following tests are met:

  • there is no viable use of the heritage asset that can be found in the medium term including through marketing to find alternative owners;
  • the heritage asset is preventing all reasonable uses of the site;
  • public support for or ownership of the asset it demonstrably not possible; and
  • the harm or loss is outweighed by the benefits of bringing the site back into use.

New development and the historic environment

New sustainable development should protect and enhance our historic environment (paragraph 7). Pursuing sustainable development involves seeking improvements in the quality of the historic environment, replacing poor design with better design (paragraph 9).

Local planning authorities should take into account the desirability of new development making a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness (paragraph 131). Local planning authorities should look for opportunities to enhance or better reveal the significance of heritage assets when considering development in their setting or with conservation areas or World Heritage Sites (paragraph 137).  

Planning decisions should aim to ensure that new developments (paragraphs 58, 60 and 61):

  • establish a strong sense of place;
  • respond to local character and history, and reflect the identity of local surroundings and materials, while not preventing or discouraging appropriate innovation;
  • address the connections between people and places;
  • integrate with the historic environment; and
  • promote or reinforce local distinctiveness. 

Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area (paragraph 64).

Recording heritage assets

Where a heritage asset is to be justifiably harmed or destroyed the local planning authority should require the developer to record the thing that will be lost in a manner that is proportionate to the nature of the loss and the importance of the asset.

For a minor matter, such as a small alteration to a building, before and after photographs may be sufficient with a basic narrative.

For large-scale development including significant destruction, this may involve substantial works of investigation, data gathering, assessment of significance and publication, all set out in a written scheme of investigation secured by conditions on the permission and/or by s106 agreement.

Further details are set out in the ‘Recording Heritage Assets’ section of this guide.


(1) National Planning Policy Framework, Department for Communities and Local Government, March 2012


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