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28/05/2021

How uncomplicating heritage planning can protect the past

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Whitechapel Bell Foundry / Shutterstock: 1928956073

Robert Jenrick's commitment to review how the planning system deals with heritage buildings is a good moment for developers to rethink their own approaches to seeking permissions that involve historic buildings, says Dean Clifford

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick announced that he would be commissioning a “review of how the Planning Inspectorate and planning policy considers and defends heritage.”

While the minister’s tweet made no allusion to what this would look like in practice, the proposed review comes after a controversial listed building consent was granted to refurbish the Grade II*-listed Bell Foundry in Whitechapel Road. In heritage terms, and after intense scrutiny, the public benefit of modernising the foundry laid out before the Planning Inspectorate was deemed to outweigh the heritage ‘harm’ that comes with changing the character of the building.

There is a tendency when looking at the redevelopment of listed heritage assets to overcomplicate things. The Bell Foundry is no different. The starting point is often the misguided assumption that planning officers are intractably opposed to change. As a result, applicants will often submit at first instance highly technical and unnecessarily guarded evidence justifying their proposals; this has the effect of drawing the dialogue away from holistic vision towards nuances in the policy framework.

Eventually, after considerable back and forth, the case inevitably ends up in the hands of a planning inspector and sometimes the courts, both potentially adding layers of further complexity through interpretations of policy. In my view, Robert Jenrick’s tweet provides an excellent opportunity for developers to step back and review the process from their perspective. I suggest thinking about two changes to approach that could have more positive effects.

"Table the aspiration rather than the supporting policy"

Firstly, to prevent an application with heritage components from being subjected to the fate described above, table the aspiration rather than the supporting policy. Research the history of the heritage asset, review the listing against its cultural and placemaking importance rather than its significance in planning, and respect its legacy. It might seem obvious, but a profound admiration for its relationship with the local community goes a long way when proposing modernisation.

Secondly, initiate the dialogue with planning authorities early and tie in statutory and non-statutory heritage bodies at the outset. For example, when we proposed the demolition and redevelopment of the Grade I-listed Park Crescent West (now known as Regent’s Crescent) in Regent’s Park, collaboration with Historic England, the Museum of London Archaeology and the Crown Estate to achieve a scholarly replication of John Nash’s architecture was underway well before submission.

"The presumption to embrace is that any application with a possible impact on heritage will always be an iterative process"

The presumption to embrace is that any application with a possible impact on heritage will always be an iterative process. While we await more news on what may well widen out into a comprehensive review of heritage planning, anyone considering works to listed buildings, and who sees the potential to contribute to a sense of place through sympathetic, well-considered
modernisation, would be wise to value the expertise of the public bodies that do so much to safeguard our historic environment.

By stepping back from policy and encouraging others to share in the vision, we may just turn the tide on the ever more complex pathway to listed building consent.

Dean Clifford is co-founder of Great Marlborough Estates, development manager for Regent’s Crescent

Photo | Lucy Daniels, Shutterstock

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