Last edited 24 Jul 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Neighbourhood plans and heritage

Neighbourhood plans have been a positive force for change, involving many more people in the planning of their area and with heritage playing an important role.

Neighbourhood planning in ramsgate.png
In Ramsgate, heritage is a key consideration in the neighbourhood planning process. (Photo: Dave Chetwyn).

Contents

Introduction

It is around a decade since neighbourhood planning legislation was enacted. Neighbourhood plans have proved to be popular, with many communities and local councils spending serious time on their preparation. In urban and rural areas around England, neighbourhood plans are now part of the statutory development plan.

There is no doubt that neighbourhood plans have supported and enabled additional growth. This is achieved through site allocations, amendment to settlement boundaries, and policies to support town centres, urban regeneration (and specifically heritage-led regeneration), employment and rural diversification. This was a point made in many responses to the 2020 Planning White Paper, which proposed a move away from neighbourhood planning, shifting power to local authority and central government levels. Indeed, neighbourhood plans are one of the few planning reforms that have actually worked in terms of enabling additional growth.

Neighbourhood plans have raised the bar on community and stakeholder engagement in planning. Most plans demonstrate a good grasp of local issues and have a clear strategy for addressing them. The involvement of business and other stakeholders sometimes adds considerable expertise. However, this does not always translate into effective policies. As with local plans, the quality of policy drafting varies considerably. For this reason, some neighbourhood plans are being revised within a relatively short period of being made.

Most plans deal with heritage in some way. This can be through specific heritage policies, but often heritage can be an issue in multiple policies, for example, those relating to town centres, housing growth, economic development and design. In many plans, heritage is an integral part of wider social, economic and environmental planning.

How plans address heritage

The relationship between heritage and housing growth is critical. The Blandford Forum Neighbourhood Plan made extensive site allocations around the north of the historic town centre. The plan has been ‘made’ and this will add to the town’s catchment population in future. Adding to catchment population of towns can improve their vitality and viability. This is not just about numbers; it helps to ensure that there is good pedestrian and cycle permeability and connectivity, supporting ease of movement between the sites and town centres.

In recent plans, Urban Vision Enterprise has been looking at the correlation between heritage policies, and those relating to landscape and biodiversity. For example, protecting elements of character and protecting biodiversity in garden-suburb-based conservation areas can involve similar policy requirements, such as in trying to protect green infrastructure.

In conservation areas, redevelopment opportunities to remodel or replace low-quality buildings can be highlighted, creating opportunities for investment, diversification and enhancement. This is a positive and locally specific approach. Policies should not be over-prescriptive, especially on stylistic matters, but they should make clear the specific elements of character, in particular townscape and spatial qualities. Policies can also address misconceived perceptions of conflict between historic context and economic growth or green design.

Biggleswade

The emerging Biggleswade Neighbourhood Plan is a recent example in which heritage is integrated into a range of policies. It underwent its Regulation 14 consultation towards the end of 2021 and is now at the examination stage. The plan, with the historic town of Biggleswade at its core, deals with heritage in various ways.

Evidence base

The evidence base for heritage in neighbourhood plans depends on the specific area and policies required. The following are common types of evidence:

Often there is a strong crossover with the wider evidence base, for example, with data relating to the economy, the natural environment and town centres.

Conservation area character appraisals and management plans can be useful, especially where they attempt to define the special architectural or historic interest of the area, and where the character analysis includes spatial and townscape characteristics (which translate most easily into policy). Character appraisals that are lengthy and descriptive in nature tend to be less useful.

Common mistakes

Some plans include generic policies on heritage or vague requirements (such as ‘should be in keeping’), or repeat national heritage policies or duties. Such policies add nothing and can actually cause harm by watering down requirements already in the local plan. Policies referring to external documents or standards tend not to work, as it requires decision-makers and developers to read those documents and assumes they will pick out the relevant parts. In practice, this does not happen, and any amendment of those external documents effectively kills the policy.

This can include requirements to comply with conservation area character documents. Such documents provide evidence to inform policymaking, but often do not set clear requirements for development to meet, so policies requiring compliance with them are often ineffective and unenforceable. It is far more effective to draft specific policy, drawing from different evidence documents.

Neighbourhood plans have undoubtedly been a positive force for change, involving many more people in the planning of their area and increasing the capacity of communities, businesses and stakeholders to influence positive outcomes. These include more sustainable forms of growth. Heritage has often been a key issue in achieving social, economic and environmental benefit.

At their best, neighbourhood plans provide a creative approach to reconciling growth with conservation and practical measures to address climate change.


This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 171, published in March 2022. It was written by Dave Chetwyn, managing director of Urban Vision Enterprise CIC, chair of the board of the National Planning Forum, and IHBC consultations and outreach secretary.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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