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31 July 2020

Enabling development: New guidance from Historic England – June 2020

Historic England published advice on this issue at the end of June in the form of Good Practice Advice Note 4 ‘Enabling Development and Heritage Assets’ (GPA4).

GPA4 replaces the ageing and pre National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) guidance published by English Heritage in 2008 entitled ‘Enabling Development and the Conservation of Significant Places’ (itself replacing English Heritage’s 2001 guidance on the subject).

GPA4 represents evolution rather than revolution. It is better aligned with what the NPPF has to say on the subject in paragraph 202 of the latest version, which states 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.’

This balancing act approach to enabling development has its origins in the long archived Planning Policy Statement 5, published by DCLG in March 2010. Before then there was no government policy on the subject, so English Heritage filled the gap by producing its own in 1999. Much of the original English Heritage policy (and the detailed guidance which followed in 2001) is evident in GPA4, although the original English Heritage policy was significantly more restrictive, being less of a balancing act and more of a shopping list of criteria to be met if an enabling development proposal was to be acceptable.

Consistent with the modern approach to government guidance, GPA4 is short, running to just 28 pages. But the main principles from before remain, albeit expressed in shorter order. GPA4 explains why assessing an enabling development application is not just a question of weighing up benefits v dis-benefits but, properly done, involves the developer and the local authority applying various criteria to a proposal. GPA4 provides a route map through the process.

It begins with identifying a ‘conservation deficit’ (in short the costs of carrying out repairs to a heritage asset are more than the asset would be worth afterwards) and the steps to be taken from there by a prospective developer to address it. They include considering whether there is a better way forwards for the asset than enabling development, which may (and generally will) be harmful to the asset. Could grants be obtained? Might a Building Preservation Trust take it on? Might some limited repairs be done that will arrest or at least slow the rate of decline until circumstances change? The need for market testing in many enabling development cases is carried over from earlier guidance and is part of the same approach explained in GPA4. Might a new owner be prepared to take on the building and restore it without enabling development and how can this possibility be tested?

For cases where enabling development is, or is likely to be, the appropriate solution, GPA4 provides guidance on the steps to be taken through the planning process. They include ensuring that there is a clear understanding of the significance of the heritage asset and the effects of enabling development upon it, a detailed assessment of the likely costs of repair and an assessment of the level of enabling development appropriate in any given case. In GPA4, as in previous advice, a useful practical guide is included upon how to undertake a development appraisal in such cases (in fact two are usually needed, the first to establish if there is a conservation deficit and the second to demonstrate the minimum amount of enabling development needed to meet the deficit). These steps will feed into a delivery plan, a prime objective of which will be to ensure that the enabling development does not happen without the works required to the heritage also happening, a matter that often needs to be regulated by planning conditions or planning obligations.

Because enabling development needs to be justified in the ways explained by GPA4, cases are seldom straightforward and professional advice is usually needed. It is not an easy route and nor it is intended to be an easy way out for developers who have overpaid for a site or for an owner that has failed to undertake appropriate repairs to a heritage asset. But in appropriate cases it is the best way forwards for all concerned.

Mark Challis is the head of our planning, infrastructure and public law team. He specialises, amongst other things, on heritage cases and was part of the drafting team that was established by English Heritage to prepare its national guidance on enabling development in 2001 and 2008.

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