Heritage assets – the art of ‘enabling development’

The term ‘enabling development’ is not a statutory one. It generally refers to a state of affairs in which development that would otherwise be considered harmful is considered acceptable because it would facilitate (or ‘enable’) benefits that outweigh that harm. Typically, the benefits in question are the generation of funds that will be used to pay for work to be done to a listed building or other heritage asset that is in pressing need of substantial repairs.

Enabling development is usually both complex and time consuming.

Enabling development as a policy has to be retained as the act of last resort – it cannot be an easy solution for owners of listed buildings (or other heritage assets) who have failed in their duty of care.

Enabling development cannot be used to rescue heritage asset owners from ill-judged transactions, such as overpaying for a property. It has to be seen as a long-term solution of last resort, with development proposals brought forward when all other options have been explored and discounted. Hardly surprising then that many enabling developments emerge with a good deal of past history or ‘baggage’.

Setting aside public policy considerations the issue of concern is a distressed heritage asset in need to tender loving care and remedial works. The longer it takes to find a solution the worse the condition the building will become, and the more cash will be needed to repair it. The clock is ticking to find a solution even if it is not the ideal.

The classic enabling development case is one where an extension is proposed to a listed building in disrepair, with the owner claiming that this is the only way to fund desperately needed repairs. The extension might have no adverse impact on the setting of the building.

PPS5 (Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment) in March 2010, was the first time we had a policy on enabling development (Policy HE11). Until then there was no government policy on the subject. English Heritage (EH), did launch an enabling development policy in 1999. It reissued it in 2001 together with a detailed practical guide that drew heavily on planning appeal decisions involving enabling development proposals, many of which are quoted in 2008 when reissued as Enabling Development and the Conservation of Significant Places,’

However, all of this has now complicated by paragraph 140 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which says, simply, that:

Local planning authorities should assess whether the benefits of a proposal for enabling development, which would otherwise conflict with planning policies but which would secure the future conservation of a heritage asset, outweigh the disbenefits of departing from those policies.

The NPPF policy considers enabling development as a simple balancing exercise: will the proposal do more harm than good? In reality many local planning authorities have approached enabling development cases in this way for years. The Heritage England policy is, however, more sophisticated but also more stringent than the one-sentence NPPF policy. The HE policy requires enabling development proposals to meet eight criteria if they are to be considered acceptable. It is thereby more than a ‘good v harm’ balancing exercise and more proposals are likely to fail the test than under the NPPF, particularly as the first EH criterion is that the proposal will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or its setting.

As is the case with much of the NPPF, the simple policy hides a complex range of practical and policy issues.The practical guide from 2008 will continue to be both useful and beneficial in guiding practitioners – we’ll be looking at how to use it and interpret the NPPF policy in a future blog.Royal Town planning Institute Logo

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