An areal view of central London along the Thames including St Pauls.
London’s iconic landmarks are set amid a wealth of characterful neighbourhoods. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Damian Grady, image reference 33088_006.
London’s iconic landmarks are set amid a wealth of characterful neighbourhoods. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Damian Grady, image reference 33088_006.

Sustaining London's Vibrant Historic Places

Helping London’s historic character build its fascinating future localities.

As London accommodates growing pressures for change, Historic England is helping ensure its emerging new places retain their historic identity.

London is an energetic, cosmopolitan and distinctive city, a major cultural and economic player on the world stage.

For those experiencing London, whether in their everyday lives or on visits, much of that valued distinctiveness is framed by its uniquely characterful neighbourhoods, the outcomes of its people’s interactions with places they’ve inherited through time, using and modifying them to fulfil their own needs, styles and aspirations.

We stand in that continuum as today’s culturally diverse generations use, adapt and add new contributions to their inherited local places to meet their purposes.

Resolving tensions of scale

However London’s economic success as a global city and its needs to resolve such social issues as ensuring adequate housing provision for its population have produced a scale and intensity of development pressures across Greater London that transcend effective management by forward planning at purely local levels.

Research commissioned by Historic England on London’s local character and density by consultants Allies and Morrison showed how, in recent decades, the overarching scale of those pressures and planning policies designed to address them are producing rapid and substantial transformations of London’s traditional neighbourhoods more incrementally developed over many generations.

That research highlighted the need to accommodate the city’s growth and development with greater respect to those neighbourhoods’ existing character if we are to retain the historically-rooted identity that makes London such a fascinating, distinctive complex of local places in which people want to build their lives and businesses.

The Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Supplementary Planning Guidance ‘Shaping Neighbourhoods: character and context’ responded in 2014 to earlier concerns about impacts on local distinctiveness from insensitive application of London’s strategic development policies to the historical context of places earmarked for change.

National planning policies -such as the National Planning Policy Framework (2012 and later 2018) and the Govt’s Planning Practice Guidance- have similarly asserted the key planning roles of local character and distinctiveness in sustainable development and the important contributions made by the historic environment to local character, echoed also in the 2016 Culture White Paper and 2017 Heritage Statement. But the issue remains: the need to sustain local character and the heritage underpinning it form major threads in the developing draft of the new London Plan.

Addressing inconsistencies

Despite this raised profile for the roles of historic local character, Greater London lacks a consistent overall assessment of its historic character to underpin planning and development roles.

Characterisation studies use a rapid broad brush approach to capture the distinct patterns and features charting the historic development and changing uses of a whole area.

 In 2016, to inform the GLA’s review of the London Plan, Historic England commissioned Land Use Consultants (LUC) to examine how far London's historic environment had been characterised and how this was being applied in planning, notably in linking local character and significance to strategic planning. Their report found over half of Boroughs had characterisation studies in place, with widely varying influence on Local Plans’ development management policies. However their diversity of approach and lack of context beyond their Borough produce substantial inconsistencies and inward-looking perspectives that work against strategic overviews of Greater London’s character or assessment of how far a Borough’s character reflects London’s broader development.

Particular urgency to overcome these limitations arises from needs to accelerate delivery of affordable new homes across London. The GLA’s ‘London Housing Strategy’ 2018 describes far-reaching measures to address that, with its implementation required to accord with GLA policy on ‘London’s form, character and capacity for growth’ to promote well-designed future places across London.

In response, London’s ‘Homebuilding Capacity Fund’ invited bids for Borough-wide characterisations that will enable due regard to the capacity and sensitivity of places to accommodate changes in housing density taking into account, amongst other aspects, their ‘historical evolution and heritage assets (including assessment of their significance and contribution to local character)’.

Developing a common language

GLA guidance will underpin these characterisations’ approach. Additionally to promote their consistency and ability to inform both Borough and strategic-level understandings of London’s character, Historic England has commissioned LUC to build on their earlier research by compiling a thesaurus of historic character terms and their meanings, relevant to a fine-grained characterisation of Greater London’s historic environment.

The ‘London’s Historic Character Thesaurus’ will allow Borough characterisations all to use a common language, enabling the GLA to assess and monitor consistently the application of its design-led approach to new residential development sites across Greater London.

Broader roles for urban historic character

LUC’s work is in progress but the Thesaurus and the characterisations it informs have roles wider than the immediate context of alleviating London’s shortage of new homes. The London Plan’s 2019 draft comments: ‘as change is a fundamental characteristic of London, respecting character and accommodating change should not be seen as mutually exclusive’.

By providing a consistent common language for historic character across all of London, Historic England gives that character a more effective voice in shaping sustainable new places whose vibrancy, identity and distinctiveness can rest on strong contributions from their historic cultural narratives.

Historic England’s engagement with this work builds on its long-standing advisory roles on London’s historic environment. Historic England operates the Historic Environment Record for Greater London and, as part of its enhancement, we have commissioned Urban Archaeological Database (UAD) Projects akin to those carried out in other historic cities.

Our latest initiative for a UAD in Westminster and Whitehall will explore time-depth characterisation of this complex urban area helping to bring the disciplines of archaeology and built heritage closer together.

Historic England’s engagement also draws on extensive national experience from the Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) of the former metropolitan counties and Extensive Urban Survey (EUS) of smaller towns and cities across England. That experience now finds application in bringing character-based understanding to Heritage Action Zones (HAZs), Historic England’s initiative with local partners to kick-start regeneration and renewal in heritage-rich places facing challenges from neglect and economic decline. Recently extended to 69 of England’s high streets, HAZs celebrate their places’ unique character and heritage, helping rebuild a sense of local pride.

Place, people and sustainability

London’s local places, as elsewhere, encompass far more than their buildings’ materiality, important though that is. They are about areas and how people perceive them. Their unique patterns of age, design, form, scale, public space and thoroughfares conflate successive narratives of past people’s daily lives, hopes and fears, struggles won and lost, whether from recent post-war decades or reaching back into London’s earlier phases. Some places now celebrated for their rich heritage have previously suffered economic decline; others await realisation of their potential.

Far from being a blank canvas, they are our historic cultural context.

When recognising our familiar local places as distinctive, part of our own identity joins with the thoughts and actions of people who have previously made use of these same areas. Historical sustainability for our thriving city means recognising we too can add our contributions that accommodate our needs and hopes while still passing on historically distinctive places to future generations.


The author wishes to thank Sandy Kidd for his input on the Westminster and Whitehall UAD.

About the author

Dave Hooley MCIfA

Senior Archaeological Investigator with Historic England

Dave Hooley has for many years worked with colleagues and partner organisations developing and applying approaches to characterising the historic dimension of England’s present landscape and seascape. He now works in Historic England’s Archaeological Survey and Investigation Team.