Historic England’s decision to cut down on the advice it gives on planning applications relating to Grade II-listed structures could threaten the nation’s built heritage, leading voices have warned
The government heritage watchdog said in a statement last week said it had ‘raised the bar’ on the type of planning applications for which it would be offering a full formal consultation response. Only those schemes posing ‘the highest risk’ to Grade II-listed buildings will now trigger detailed advice from the body.
Concerns have been raised that local authorities will be ill-equipped to take on the increasing number of judgements on proposed changes to protected buildings where expert advice was withdrawn.
Catherine Croft, director of conservation campaign group the Twentieth Century Society, said there was currently an ‘acute shortage’ of unbiased expert advice on how to treat historic buildings.’
Acknowledging that Historic England had suffered budget cuts and was ‘hopelessly overstretched’, she added: ’[This policy shift] has come at the same time as extensive cuts to local authority posts. Amenity societies such as ourselves just don’t have the funds to plug the gaps.
‘An increasing percentage of historic building professionals now work for the private sector, and while most want to maintain their integrity, all too many are tempted to slant their assessments to suit the avaricious objectives of the developers without whose fees they would be out of a job.
‘Without more government funding at national and local levels, our heritage will be irreparably damaged.’
Will Holborow, associate at conservation specialist Purcell, told the AJ that Historic England’s expert advice remained ‘extremely important’ in protecting the heritage value of the country’s most important historic buildings.
‘Any diminution of this advice would put greater pressure on local authorities that have already experienced a dramatic decline in the number of their in-house heritage advisers,’ he added.
‘There is a need for more training to be offered to local authority planning staff and specialist consultants to improve the quality and consistency of applications for listed building consent.
‘There is also potential for accredited conservation and heritage consultants to play a greater role in advising local planning authorities on listed building consent applications, possibly through some form of top-up accreditation scheme.’
Peter Stewart of Peter Stewart Consultancy said Historic England’s advice would be less important if councils were better equipped with heritage expertise.
‘The risk to the historic environment is that heritage experts within local planning authorities can be overruled by their colleagues,’ he added. ‘Historic England is an independent and national organisation, so it has more authority, and it is harder for officers and decision-makers to ignore.’
SAVE Britain’s Heritage executive president Marcus Binney said it remained ‘extremely important’ that Historic England responded ‘clearly and firmly’ to all applications to demolish Grade II listed buildings.
The worry is that ‘no comment’ would be seen as acceptance of a bad scheme
‘Some alterations are perfectly acceptable but it is critical that Historic England addresses the most important cases, involving significant or damaging changes,’ he added. ‘The worry would be that “no comment” would be seen as acceptance of a bad scheme.’
A Historic England spokesperson said: ‘We provide planning advice in relation to listed buildings of all grades and provide substantive advice on those where we consider it would be most valuable.
‘When assessing applications affecting buildings listed at Grade II, we are concerned with those proposals which would pose a high risk to a building’s significance – generally those with very far-reaching changes or complete demolition. These make up a small proportion of cases.
‘We prioritise buildings listed at Grades I and II* on account of their greater significance. Applications are determined by local planning authorities who should have access to their own specialist advice.’
The watchdog said it had been reviewing the way it provided advice to local planning authorities in response to applications for listed building consent.
‘We always need to ensure that our limited resources are used to best effect to protect the historic environment in a way that is of most public benefit,’ said a spokesperson.
We have amended the level at which we set the bar for responses
‘We have amended the level at which we set the bar for responses and are concentrating our work on proposals affecting historic buildings of the highest significance – those listed at Grades I and II* – and those posing the highest risk to Grade II-listed buildings.
‘In addition to the advice which we will continue to provide to local authorities on individual cases, we shall also continue to support them and others through our successful capacity building programmes, helping them to carry out their vital responsibilities in respect of the conservation of the historic environment as a part of sustainable development.’