Monday, 26 June 2017

Setting of a Listed Building

Not for the first time, the High Court has been called upon in Steer v SSCLG [2017] EWHC 1456 (Admin) to consider the duty of a decision-maker under section 66 of the Listed Buildings Act to have special regard to the desirability of preserving (among the other things listed in that section) the setting of a listed building. The glossary annexed to the NPPF defines the “setting of a heritage asset” as:

The surroundings in which a heritage asset is experienced. Its extent is not fixed and may change as the asset and its surroundings evolve. Elements of a setting may make a positive or negative contribution to the significance of an asset, may affect the ability to appreciate that significance or may be neutral.

Paragraphs 128 to 134 of the NPPF explain how section 66 is expected to work in practice, and further guidance is to be found in the government’s online Planning Practice Guidance, in addition to a publication by Historic England: “The Setting of heritage Assets (Historic Environment Good Practice Advice in Planning: 3)” Although the last of these does not constitute a statement of government policy, it is intended to provide information on good practice in implementing historic environment policy in the NPPF and PPG. I don’t propose to include quotations here from these documents, which will be found in the judgment.

The instant case concerned the setting of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire – a Grade I Listed Building owned by the National Trust (who objected to the proposed development because, in its opinion, it would have a harmful impact on the setting and significance of the heritage asset, which would not be outweighed by the benefits of the housing). The NT, however, was not a party to these proceedings, but Historic England appeared by counsel as an interested party.

The claimant (a local resident) had objected to the two planning applications that had been the subject of appeals allowed by the Secretary of State’s planning inspector. The first application was for outline planning permission for the erection of up to 400 dwellings and a convenience store. The second application was for outline planning permission for the erection of up to 195 dwellings in the southern half of the same site.

The Claimant’s principal ground of challenge was that the Inspector erroneously applied a narrow interpretation when determining the setting of Kedleston Hall, in which a physical or visual connection was needed, despite the existence of an historical, social and economic connection between the Hall and its agricultural estate lands. This approach, it was claimed, was inconsistent with the broad meaning given to “setting” in the NPPF, the PPG and Historic England’s ‘Good Practice Advice’. At the Inquiry, there was a body of expert evidence stating the historical connection did bring the appeal site within the setting of the Hall.

In her conclusions, Mrs Justice Lang noted that there was a significant amount of material before the Inspector in support of the submission that the appeal site formed part of the setting of both Kedleston Hall and the Park because of the historical, social and economic association between the Hall and the agricultural lands of its Estate and drew attention to Historic England’s observations on the issue of the setting of Kedlestone Hall and its Park, the significance of that setting and the impact of the proposals on the significance of the setting, which Historic England had set out in a written response to consultation by the LPA. English Heritage’s position was that the proposed housing development would harm the significance which Kedleston Hall and the Grade 1 registered Park and Garden derives from its setting.

The National Trust had also drawn attention to the significance of Kedleston Hall’s setting, a point that was also reiterated by the Gardens Trust, who had pointed out that “............the setting of a heritage asset is a much wider concept than mere visibility” and that “Historic England defines setting as the surroundings in which [the asset] is experienced [their emphasis]. Views, while they may be an important part of this experience and clearly identify the presence of a setting, do not constitute its totality, or even the greater part of it..”. The Development Control Archaeologist at Derbyshire County Council expressed a similar view.

Mrs Justice Lang pointed out that the Inspector was required to address this evidence in his decision letter, whether or not he agreed with it. It related to a main issue in the appeal, on which the developer disagreed with the objectors. Much of the evidence was given by experts. Historic England was a statutory consultee and a “decision-maker should give the views of statutory consultees … ‘great’ or ‘considerable’ weight. A departure from those views requires ‘cogent and compelling reasons’. (See Shadwell Estates Ltd v Breckland DC [2013] EWHC 12 (Admin), at [72].)

The Inspector accepted the evidence as to the historic social and economic connections between the Hall and Park and the area in which the appeal site was situated, but he rejected the evidence and submissions that the appeal site was part of the setting of the Hall, despite the historic social and economic connections. The Inspector concluded that the appeal site was not part of the Hall’s setting because of the lack of a physical or visual connection, which he treated as essential to the identification of “surroundings in which a heritage asset is experienced” (NPPF definition of “setting”). The Inspector recorded that it had been argued that the historical, social and economic connection – the appeal site being part of the estate of which the Hall and Park were the hub – brought the appeal site within the setting of the Hall. He determined, however, that there has to be more of a physical or visual connection than that, otherwise land completely remote from the Hall could be deemed within its setting.

In the judge’s view, the Inspector’s findings clearly indicated that his focus was upon identifying a visual connection, and assessing the proposal’s impact upon it. The historic social and economic connections were set to one side in this exercise. (The judge did not therefore accept the Secretary of State’s submission that the Inspector merely formed a planning judgment that the historic social and economic factors were of insufficient weight, as there was no assessment of the weight to be accorded to them in the Inspector’s decision-making process. In her view, the Inspector’s approach to the other heritage assets also confirmed that he treated the physical and visual connection as determinative.)

Thus the Inspector had adopted a narrow interpretation of setting which was inconsistent with the broad meaning given to setting in the relevant policies and guidance which were before him. Whilst a physical or visual connection between a heritage asset and its setting will often exist, it is not essential or determinative. The term setting is not defined in purely visual terms in the NPPF which refers to the “surroundings in which a heritage asset is experienced”. The word “experienced” has a broad meaning, which is capable of extending beyond the purely visual (as confirmed by the policy and practice guidance that had been referred to).

Mrs Justice Lang therefore agreed with the submission of the claimant and Historic England that the Inspector had adopted an artificially narrow approach to the issue of “setting” which treated visual connections as essential and determinative. In adopting this approach, the Inspector made an error of law, and his appeal decision was accordingly quashed.

This case is clearly important in establishing the wide scope of the term “setting” where it is used in section 66 of the Historic Buildings Act, and in the various advice on this issue published by ministers and by Historic England.


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Qualifying use of agricultural building under Class Q

I am grateful to Nathan Dickinson for drawing to my attention a problem that seems to have arisen over the interpretation by certain LPAs of the rules relating to the qualification of agricultural buildings for residential conversion under Class Q in Part 3 of the Second Schedule to the GPDO. I explained the rules in Chapter 9 of my book, “A Practical Guide to Permitted Changes of Use” (which can still be ordered by clicking on the link on the left-hand side of this page.).

Paragraph Q.1(a) puts this in the negative. Development is not permitted by Class Q if the site [i.e the building and an area no larger than its footprint] was not used solely for an agricultural use as part of an established agricultural unit on 20th March 2013, or (in the case of a building which was in use before that date but had ceased to be used for agriculture by that date) when it was last in use.

I really don’t think there can be much doubt as to what this means. The building must have been in agricultural use on, or at some date before, 20 March 2013, but it still qualifies if it is no longer used for agricultural purposes, provided it has not been used for any other purpose since ceasing to be used for agriculture. Thus a redundant or disused agricultural building does qualify for conversion under Class Q, but this permitted development right is lost if the building has been put to some other use since it ceased to be used for agriculture.

I can therefore find no justification whatsoever for the bizarre interpretation that Breckland DC (to name just one LPA) has sought to put on Class Q. They have entirely ignored the words of paragraph Q.1(a) and have seized instead on the operative words of Class Q(a), namely “Development consisting of - (a) a change of use of a building and any land within its curtilage from a use as an agricultural building [their emphasis] to a use falling within Class C3 (dwellinghouses) of the Schedule to the Use Classes Order……..” Thus, they claim, the building has to be in current agricultural use, and they demand that the applicant should demonstrate that this is for a trade or business purpose.

I understand that the Council bases this interpretation on the definition of “agricultural building” in paragraph X, viz: “a building (excluding a dwellinghouse) used for agriculture and which is so used for the purposes of a trade or business”. This, they seem to assume, means that to be an agricultural building as specified in Class Q(a) the building must now be used for agriculture (and it is not disputed that this necessarily requires that this use is or was commercial, and would not include a use that only amounted to hobby farming). However, if present and continued agricultural use were to be a necessary qualifying criterion, it would render the words of paragraph Q.1(a) entirely otiose. The inclusion in that paragraph of a reference to a building which was in use before 20 March 2013 but had ceased to be used for agriculture by that date was clearly intended to show that the building qualifies if it was last in use for agriculture, but has since been disused.

Clearly, if anyone gets a nonsense decision from any LPA which purports to find that the building in question is disqualified from residential conversion under Class Q because it is not currently in agricultural use, even though it was last used for an agricultural trade or business and was so used on or before 20th March 2013, they should have no hesitation in appealing to the Planning Inspectorate against this decision under section 78, and coupling this appeal with application for an award of costs, bearing in mind that an LPA will be held to have behaved unreasonably if its refusal of planning permission (or in this case prior approval) is based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the law.