Is Wales about to lose listed building consent?
The Law Commission has been asked by the Welsh Government to examine the operation of the Welsh planning system. The Law Commission has reviewed the existing development-control process in Wales and put forward a number of proposed reforms. The SPAB and other heritage bodies are most concerned about the proposal to merge listed building consent with planning permission.
The SPAB has submitted a response to the consultation outlining the ways in which we feel that this highly controversial proposal will lead to the devaluation of listed buildings and their status in the planning system in Wales. Our full response is available to download. If you share our concerns we would urge you to make a representation on the consultation, to stop these damaging reforms from being made.
Planning system in Wales
The planning system in Wales is similar to that in England though there are some differences brought in under the Historic Environment (Wales) Act 2016. The SPAB welcomed the Act and the beneficial changes for historic environment protection it ushered in. Arguably Wales now has the most robust and progressive heritage protection in the United Kingdom. We believe that implementing the proposed reforms set out in the review would undermine the exemplary protection that Wales is currently afforded by its new legislation.
What is the proposal?
The Law Commission review proposes a number of changes to the wider planning system in Wales, but the SPAB is most concerned with the proposal to merge listed building consent and planning permission. The Law Commission wants to redefine the term ‘development’ so that works which would normally only require listed building consent would now need planning permission. This will allow the listed building consent process to be abolished. This would mean that works which affect the ‘special architectural and historic interest’ of listed buildings which are currently not considered ‘development’ (e.g. internal works) would in future be classed as development and would require only planning permission.
The arguments made in the proposal are not entirely without merit and might seem logical and persuasive. However, crucially, we do not agree that the proposals would ensure that the existing level of protection for heritage assets would be maintained.
We predict that the following consequences would have a detrimental affect on the protection of the historic environment in Wales:
The loss of special status of listed buildings
We consider that the requirement for listed building consent is based on a different ethos and legal basis than planning permission. Planning and development-control relates to the need to regulate land use and promote sustainable growth. Listed building consent exists primarily to protect nationally important buildings. It also ensures the appropriate management of change to allow those buildings to be used. We anticipate that the separate purposes of the two consent systems would be obscured by their being merged and that the requirement to have 'special regard to preserving or enhancing' listed buildings during decision making could be lost to the growth agenda. We believe that to have a single process for the construction of an industrial shed and the demolition of a listed building will downgrade the importance of listed buildings.
Impact on local authority expertise
The current requirement for listed building consent indicates to owners and decision makers that the asset they are dealing with is so valuable, sensitive and irreplaceable that it needs an additional consent, overseen by a specialist officer. Any perceived reduction of the value of listed buildings, their status within the planning system and the regime that controls them can only aggravate the already alarming cuts to historic environment expertise in local authorities.
It is well documented that the heritage expertise in local authorities is declining and it is clear to those working in the sector that in the current climate this reform would inevitably lead to cuts to specialist staff.
At present the proposed reforms would introduce a fee for heritage and listed building consent applications. Presently, applications for listed building consent are not subject to a fee on the basis that most listed building consent applications are not made for commercial gain, and because the state imposes greater expectations on owners of listed buildings because of their public value.
Unauthorised works and permitted development
There is a long-standing argument that to introduce a charge for non-developmental works to a listed building would increase the likelihood of unauthorised works taking place. Lost historic features cannot be reinstated by taking enforcement action: once they are gone they are gone.
Householders currently have a number of ‘permitted development rights’ which allow them to undertake minor works without the need for planning permission but permitted development does not apply to listed buildings. The proposed reform maintains that position, however, it seems conceivable that owners of listed buildings would undertake minor works, as their neighbours have legally done under permitted development, simply through a misunderstanding of the status of their building under a new planning system which only requires planning permission be sought.
The ecclesiastical exemption affords certain religious denominations an exemption from the requirement to seek listed building consent. Those denominations are not exempt from the requirements of planning permission, and it is not clear what impact the abolition of listed building consent would have on this exemption and the current parallel denominational consent regimes.
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