Energy efficiency retrofitting in historic homes – a tightrope

On 3 January 2024, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) (among others) published the results of their review into the practical planning barriers that households can face when installing energy efficiency measures in conservation areas and listed buildings. The review sets out various actions and recommendations to try to remove some of those barriers, which seem straightforward, but implementing them will involve a tricky balancing act.

The current Planning ‘barriers’

As things stand, there are many energy efficiency measures that could be installed in homes without the need to apply for planning permission because they benefit from ‘permitted development rights’. However, where homes are located within a conservation area the relevant permitted development rights are often subject to exceptions or more restrictive criteria.

Similarly, where a property has been protected as a listed building, many alterations that might otherwise not need planning permission, would nevertheless require listed building consent.

These barriers exist for good reason: to protect valuable heritage assets from potential harm by giving local planning authorities a greater degree of scrutiny and control over proposals that might other wise affect the character or appearance of buildings deemed worthy of protection. Of course they come at a price for those involved in trying to retrofit energy efficiency measures: greater cost, complexity, inconsistency, uncertainty, delay, administrative burden, etc.

The review found, that some people are put off even trying to retrofit energy efficiency measures in their homes. It concludes:

  • there is confusion in the public’s mind about the type of approval, if any, needed;
  • there are inconsistencies between local planning authorities; and
  • the process can be too slow and uncertain.

The indication is that this is too high a price for safeguarding our heritage when it comes to energy efficiency measures in the context of the Government’s commitment to achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.

So what are the suggested solutions?

Proposed Planning measures

There is a long list of measures proposed (many of which are not new measures at all), but the key Planning measures are:

  1. clearer planning policy and guidance; and
  2. the potential introduction of the equivalent of permitted development rights for listed buildings.

Clearer Policy and Guidance

DLUHC has already published an updated National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This ,which provides greater emphasis on the need for local planning authorities to support low carbon and energy efficient heating improvements to historic buildings. Following Royal Assent of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023, DLUHC has also established  legislative framework to create new National Development Management Policies (NDMPs) which will have the same status as local planning authorities’ Local Plan policies when they make planning decisions. The review states that DLUHC’s suite of NDMPs will include a policy specifically for improvements to historic buildings, which “will help to ensure greater certainty and consistency about decisions on applications for energy efficiency improvements affecting listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas.” And the review commits “in the shorter-term” that Historic England will publish its Historic Environment Advice Note on Climate Change and Historic Building Adaptation “to provide greater certainty to local planning authorities and applicants”.

Listed Building Consent Orders and Local Listed Building Consent Orders

Both types of Listed Building Consent Orders were introduced by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 as a mechanism to grant blanket listed building consent for specified works, subject to specified criteria – i.e. the equivalent of the permitted development rights regime for listed buildings. However, the powers to introduce a national Listed Building Consent Order have never been used, and Local Listed Building Consent Orders are rare.

The review commits to a consultation on the increased use of Local Listed Building Consent Orders and the potential for a “national” Listed Building Consent Order. Subject to the outcome of DLUHC’s consultation, the review states that Historic England will work with local planning authorities to produce exemplar Local Listed Building Consent Orders.

Will it help?

If all of these measures are introduced together, in theory they have the potential to make retrofitting energy efficiency measures in protected homes faster and provide more certainty. But, as ever, the devil will be in the detail, and there are difficult balancing acts ahead with each of the review’s proposals.

Nationally set policy and guidance is inherently general and it is difficult to be too specific without making a code so extensive that it ceases to be user friendly. Just compare the suite of national planning policies before and after the introduction of the NPPF and you’ll see what I mean. More policy does not always equal more clarity.

A national Listed Building Consent Order has potential to be highly effective – it could be used to remove the need for listed building consent applications for a whole range of energy efficiency measures in one fell swoop. But, if the permitted development regime is anything to go by, it won’t be that simple. There will be exclusions and conditions and prior approval requirements. And will any Secretary of State be bold enough to introduce a nationwide blanket listed building consent for measures like solar panels or air source heat pumps that have the potential to be so visually controversial?

Local Listed Building Consent Orders could be more targeted, but their inherently local nature is not going to improve the complexity and inconsistency of the system, which the review has highlighted as perceived barriers.

Striking a balance between conservation and improvement has always been like navigating a tricky tightrope. With this review some bold first steps have been taken along it but, with the winds of an upcoming election picking up, the rope may start to wobble. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the journey pans out…


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