08 October 2019

Non-Designated Heritage Assets: The need for greater clarity and certainty.

There is no question that designated heritage assets such as listed buildings and conservation areas generally make a valuable contribution to the richness of our built environment, our wellbeing, our economy and are inspiring place-making across the country. At WSP | Indigo our specialist Heritage and Placemaking team advises developers on opportunities to conserve and enhance these assets and create great places to work, live and enjoy.

However, since the first version of the NPPF in 2012 introduced the concept of a ‘non-designated heritage asset’[1] (NDHA) it has caused uncertainty and difficulties in the planning process. Identification as a NDHA means that a building or site’s conservation as a heritage asset is an objective and a material consideration when determining the outcome of a planning application. The relevant policy requires ‘a balanced judgement’ when assessing applications relating to NDHAs. However, frequently and frustratingly a NDHA will be treated the same as a listed building by local planning authorities (LPAs) even though listed buildings have a higher level of protection. Also, the basis for asserting a building is a NDHA is questionable and highly subjective.

NDHAs can include buildings, parks, structures, landscapes considered to have a degree of heritage significance. The concept enables features that are an important part of our local distinctiveness and the character and beauty of places but do not meet Historic England’s national interest criteria to be recognised. However, the lack of formal criteria, the seemingly arbitrary identification and restrictive approach to the management of change to these NDHAs has created uncertainty and frustration in the development sector as well as increasing the work load of already over stretched councils. 

Ideally, LPAs will all have an up to date, easily accessible local list of NDHAs and a set of clear criteria for the assessment of their significance of the NDHAs. (It is also worth noting that Historic Environment Records (HERs) are a helpful primary source of information for the historic built environment and archaeology, including NDHAs and this is a national network covering every local authority area). For example, during the pre-application or application submission stage, a council can consider a building to be a NDHA and this leads to another layer of policy justification to be addressed. This is despite the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) clearly stating a “substantial majority of buildings have little or no heritage significance…only a minority have enough heritage significance to merit identification as non-designated heritage assets.”

This creates uncertainty which may mean that these buildings are left to languish rather than being given the opportunity to be regenerated.  Where a local list does exist and where management policies are published there is clarity that being identified as a NDHA offers no additional protection but is a material consideration in the determination of a planning application. Some LPAs, in lieu of clear guidance, are treating NDHAs as being equal to listed buildings or an equivalent designated asset rather than making a ‘balanced judgement’.

For example, internal alterations to an unlisted building can be carried out without planning permission. This includes un-listed buildings which the LPA considers to be a NDHA. However, developers are frequently asked to retain internal and external features. Why should a developer be required to retain certain internal elements of a NDHA which is part of development proposal when planning permission is not required to alter them? Why should a developer have to justify demolition of an unlisted building if it is not in a conservation area and has very limited heritage interest?

The fall-back position is that internal alterations can be made without planning permission and there is a permitted development right for demolition of some types of non-residential buildings that are not listed or within a conservation area.

Recent revisions to the PPG have furthered guidance explaining that LPAs should pro-actively identify non-designated heritage assets by preparing a local list or identifying ‘buildings of merit’ in a conservation area appraisal or neighbourhood plan. The guidance explains that this will “provide greater clarity and certainty for developers and decision-makers”. The guidance also calls for information on the criteria used to select a NDHA.

Clearly, it is more difficult to identify non-designated heritage assets of archaeological importance. The guidance acknowledges that in some cases, local planning authorities may identify non-designated heritage assets of archaeological importance as part of the decision-making process on planning applications. However, buildings, parks, landscapes and other above ground assets which have a degree of heritage significance should be pro-actively identified.

As many councils are under resourced, it’s understandable that they may not have a local list in place. Our research has found that in the Yorkshire and Humber region only four of the 21 planning authorities have a local list in place. Major settlements such as Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate do not have a list in place. This can cause uncertainty for developers considering redevelopment proposals particularly on brownfield sites ripe for regeneration. Is it reasonable to request a developer to retain an older building or its façade just because a highly subjective, reactionary decision has been made that it is a NDHA without any consultation or published criteria or assessment as to its significance?

There is a need for this ‘designation’ to be reviewed and amended. It appears that there are two choices. The designation needs to be either removed from national policy or, more realistically, policy or the PPG needs to be strengthened and clarified.  Three suggested amendments which could be implemented are:

  • Amend policy to ensure the term ‘non-designated heritage asset’ is only used in reference to below ground, archaeological features which are more difficult to identify pro-actively; or
  • Amend the PPG to state that a building cannot be identified as a NDHA during the planning application process if it is not referenced in a formal local list, conservation area appraisal or neighbourhood plan; and
  • Amend the PPG to ensure that LPAs cannot stipulate the interior of a building identified as a NDHA to be retained as part of a proposal.

In conclusion, the introduction of NDHAs has democratised our heritage enabling local authorities and communities to identify what they deem to be positive elements that contribute to their local distinctiveness, social and historical narrative. However, there is a need for more certainty, accountability and transparency in identifying and managing NDHAs. This will enable good strategic planning and provide clarity for owners, developers and officers. The suggested changes to policy and guidance will provide certainty and enable the necessary ‘balanced judgement’ to be carried out. Certainty and clarity are ultimately what developers crave from the planning system.


[1] The article does not refer to non-designated heritage assets of archaeological interest.