Balancing Heritage and Growth in Cathedral Cities and Historic Towns

Louise Thomas explains a new HTVF research project

The Historic Towns and Villages Forum (HTVF) is a key partner in a new Historic England funded research study, working with the Alliance of Historic Cathedral Cities and Towns (ACT). Developed from work by ACT in 2017, this study Balancing Heritage and Growth in Cathedral Cities and Historic Towns is looking at how growth is being accommodated in historic towns in England, and how heritage and growth can be better balanced and more sustainable.


Focussing on historic towns and cities as whole settlements, the study aims to produce practical, policy-relevant recommendations designed to help local authorities to tackle the challenges of growth in relation to heritage, and most importantly empower local communities to assist in this. The project is built around the contributions of local civic societies in identifying local character and challenges to heritage. These are Canterbury, Chester, Chichester, Durham, Lichfield, Oxford, Peterborough, Tewkesbury, Wakefield, Winchester, Worcester and Wells.

The basis of the study is that legislation and policy for protecting heritage tend to bite at the level of the individual building, historic site or limited locality (e.g. conservation areas). There is no legislation devoted to historic towns and cities as a whole, yet many struggle to balance heritage, the demands of growth or the need for investment.

Working with urban design, heritage and planning consultants Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners, the project will deliver:

a method or toolkit for assessing the types and characteristics of development likely to be sympathetic to historic places and those likely to be problematic; and,

guidance for planners, civic societies and conservation specialists on how to ensure positive benefits from development in historic places.

The results that the project seeks to achieve in the longer term are:

  • a greater understanding of the positive benefits of growth in historic towns and smaller cathedral cities, in areas under development pressure or promoting heritage-led regeneration;
  • the mitigation of potential damage to urban historic character; and,
  • a contribution to on-going local and national planning policy formulation focused on the growth challenges in historic towns and cities as a whole.

Since this project began in December 2019, it has of course been affected by the restrictions related to COVID-19 and social distancing, as much of the early data collection has involved the partners conducting interviews with other civic societies and local planning authorities, but also visiting other towns and cities.


While the project is currently on ice, it is useful to reflect on the effects that COVID-19 restrictions may have on the research’s questions, findings and recommendations. The massive reduction in traffic on our streets has led to a widespread appreciation of our public realm (whether streets or parks), the importance of easy access to a range of natural open spaces, safer walking and cycling space for all, and a clearer view of our heritage – natural or built, grand or ordinary – across less polluted streets and roads. The strengthening of community relationships is also to be celebrated, especially as work, commuting, office politics and busy lives in general have increasingly overshadowed the value of the neighbourhood.

However, the vulnerability of high streets and city and town centres has increased. Cafes, restaurants, tourism and leisure activities, and flexible workspaces had been seen as the saviours of the town centre ‘experience’, but are now under threat due to the likely degrees of social distancing required for the remainder of 2020. The viability of businesses operating at very low table or desk densities may mean that they cannot reopen for some time or at all.

Perhaps we need to take comfort from the longevity of our historic centres and their ability to adapt over time as we plan our way forward – the conversation about the need to rethink town centres had already started, and so the first hurdle has been cleared in some ways. However it will take some time to see the impact of the virus on the rest of the economy, and how that will affect growth and regeneration plans, confidence and investment. The High Streets Task Force’s COVID-19 Recovery Framework offers local authorities a way to take the steps forward that we need.


But what of local authorities which were already under pressure? The threats of not having a five year housing land supply in place or not determining applications in time remain in place at the time of writing, so developers could gain planning consent thanks to the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ regardless of the desirability of their proposals. There is also a risk that planning officers have been diverted to COVID-19 related services in authorities, especially in those that have not identified planners as key workers; indeed planning and heritage officers could have been ill, and already under-resourced teams would not able to cover for them, and key community concerns could be overlooked. More councils are now conducting virtual committee meetings so that the delegated authority powers granted to senior officers should not be needed. Conservation officers are reporting opportunities for better quality decision-making as a result of needing more evidence from applicants and rethinking practises while working from home. Yet this period and the months that follow could prove a testing time for town planning.


Shortly before the lockdown began, the Government’s white paper Planning for the Future indicated plans to introduce a number of efficiency-style measures in the planning system, including to:

  • Expand the use of zoning tools to support development – simplifying the process of granting planning permission for residential and commercial development through zoning tools, such as Local Development Orders;
  • Revise the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to embed the principles of good design and placemaking – this will make clear that high-quality buildings and places must be considered throughout the planning process;
  • Respond to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report; and
  • Give local authorities the ability to ensure that new homes conform to local residents’ ideas of beauty through the planning system – using the National Model Design Code.

While some of these measures are to be welcomed, the return to planning by zoning risks eliminating mixed use areas, which are the lifeblood of most towns and cities.

The forthcoming local government reform green paper proposed for Autumn 2020 may make this detailed relationship with places harder to manage, if more unitary authorities are promoted. This is already emerging in our case studies examined to-date, where county-level knowledge and control appears to be remote from historic centres.

So for civic societies and community groups there is much to do alongside their local authority partners to develop and monitor growth and recovery plans together, and remind decision-makers of the value of our social and built heritage to well-being.

Louise Thomas, Director, Historic Towns and Villages Forum


Members' Interests 2020 Survey

In the light of the COVID-19 restrictions, we are rethinking our usual programme of face-to-face regional events for 2020-21. A key part of this is gathering ideas and understanding the challenges faced by our members and followers in the course of their work - managing our built and natural heritage.

Please use our short survey to let us know the kind of seminars, formats and information that would help you, so that we can support you in the coming year. The survey closes on Friday 26th June 2020:

Thanks to everyone who gave their views and offered us their services for the coming year - we will be back in touch soon!


'House Detectives' - an external approach to reigniting local tourism

Visit Ely have been looking at how to engage visitors in a socially-distanced and safe way, whilst still celebrating this beautiful city. Launched this week is a brand new outdoor tour for this summer - House Detectives. The building known as Oliver Cromwell's House has stood in Ely's St Mary's Street for many centuries, undergoing numerous changes during this time. This new tour will allow visitors to explore the clues within the external fabric of the building and discover the social and historical context of the house.

As with many historical properties during this unprecedented time, Oliver Cromwell's House is closed to the public, but Visit Ely has been looking for alternative ways to generate income to keep the House sustainable, and use the guides' expert knowledge.


Crisis or catalyst? Planning challenges and changes arising from the COVID-19 pandemic

Julia Berry, Consultant Solicitor at Reed Smith explores the issues

The current crisis has presented the planning world with unprecedented challenges; from the logistics of local authority remote decision-making to progressing appeals, implementing planning consents, and meeting CIL and s106 deadlines. Every area has been affected.

Some innovative responses and been swift and welcomed, while others are urgently awaited. Consideration needs to be given not only to the immediate difficulties, but the long-term economic impacts, which will affect the country for years to come.


On a positive note, many local authorities should be congratulated for having dealt rapidly with a huge change to their working practices. Kensington and Chelsea Council, in particular, were up and running within days of the Coronavirus Act enabling councils to hold remote meetings, holding their first virtual committee on 9 April 2020; however some councils have struggled with moving online (and I’m not just referring to the infamous inaugural South Somerset Zoom meeting and its unfortunate trolling). There are, of course, specific requirements which councils need to meet, particularly in relation to public involvement, but planning decisions cannot be unduly delayed and local authorities unable to adapt quickly should be encouraged to rely on emergency powers to delegate decisions where possible. All local authorities will need to adapt rapidly, as long-lasting social distancing measures will make it imperative to establish new ways of conducting the full council meetings required for major and financial decisions, and to ensure proper public involvement in processes, such as development plan examinations in the future.

The speed with which local authorities have largely reacted (and the Planning Court which was up and running with virtual courts admirably quickly) has not been matched by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), which initially postponed all hearings and enquiries completely, citing concerns about site visits and public involvement, and has only just commenced the first digital pilot hearing on 11 May. With nearly 10,000 open cases (and over 300 appeals submitted in the last three weeks) we hope that the aim to conduct fully digital and hybrid platforms for ‘most’ cases within six months will be achieved, if not surpassed. It is vital that appeal schemes should not be delayed any further, but we have been assured that they are doing their best to work towards an early roll out of these platforms.

Local planning authorities are working with similar problems, but are using technology to overcome them. Applications are still being accepted (with site visits more problematic we are advising applications be submitted with as much digital evidence as possible, and applicants making arrangements for site notices, etc.) and public involvement is being enabled through digital platforms. The Government has said that it does not intend to extend determination timescales, but is has just announced changes to publicity arrangements to give greater flexibility to the existing requirements. It is not yet clear why PINS is being so slow to adopt new measures, and there is great concern as to how they will deal with the backlog of cases already building up, in addition to the delays in the appeal system that we were already experiencing.

An extended pause in development will only serve to escalate the country’s economic crisis.


Scotland has already acted to automatically extend time limits for implementing planning permissions, but no moves have yet been made for a similar measure in England. The Government is under great pressure to introduce an equivalent extension for consents and other relevant deadlines, together with either the reintroduction of an ability to vary time limiting conditions - the withdrawal of which has caused so many practical problems in recent years - or the simplified procedure introduced in the wake of the last global crisis in 2008 to apply for replacement planning consents. There will be unavoidable delays to commencing developments and obtaining pre-commencement condition approvals over the coming months, and a lengthy re-application process will cause difficulties for developers and local authorities alike, and will do nothing to aid the speedy economic recovery which will be needed.

A creative approach to the deemed discharge of conditions may be one way forward. This procedure can currently only be used currently for certain conditions (not EIA development, Grampian conditions or for conditions covering matters such as contaminated land) and notice procedures must be followed strictly, but a wider, more collaborative, use of this procedure could help developers and over-stretched planning authorities.

A mechanism will also be required for the relaxation of time limits for s106 agreements and an ability to review obligations on viability grounds, perhaps by way of the reintroduction, with a wider scope, of section 106BA which enabled developers to reduce or remove section 106 affordable housing obligations on the grounds of viability following the financial crisis. The current Secretary of State, who appears to be pro-development if the recent recovered decisions are anything to go by, must be called upon by the industry to act quickly in this respect. The Government is in listening mode, as evidenced by the speedy reaction to the needs of the food retail sector.


A large-scale economic downturn will require a re-examination of the CIL regime. Some councils have laudably already announced postponements for currently scheduled payments on stalled developments, but this flexibility should be considered by all councils. The Government has now announced some limited help. We await further details, and any changes will require Parliamentary approval, but it seems that the deferral of payments and the waiver of interest penalties are being considered, but only for developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million. The Government and local authorities may have to go further and consider further flexibility for payments, changes to tariffs and the application of exceptional circumstances relief or even discounts contingent on development being commenced and progressed within certain timescales, to ensure that it is brought forward quickly and contributes to much needed economic growth.


An unlawful change of use, or a breach of a planning condition, that has been underway continuously for more than 10 years is immune from any planning enforcement, but of course will need proof as to timing. Where the use has stopped because of the current crisis, the trend of recent cases through the courts is that a break in such a use is a question of fact - irrespective of the cause. This could have far-reaching impacts when trying to argue for enforcement immunity in the future, causing difficulties with applications for certificates of lawfulness and in enforcement scenarios.


The importance of our local environment, place-making, air quality and the standard of living conditions has been driven home to us all in the past few weeks. However this may be the time for a radical overhaul of the development system and the introduction of previously largely unpalatable ideas, such as land use zoning. Development will be crucial to the country’s economic recovery and must be a priority for the Government – deregulation may be the way forward, especially now when local authorities have had even more burdens thrust upon them and insufficient resources to deal with them. With a new White Paper on the horizon we might well see the paradigm shift which would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.

Julia Berry, Consultant Solicitor, Planning and Environment Unit, Reed Smith