How are barriers to retrofitting heritage homes being addressed?

Ewan Fulford, Policy Officer, National Housing Federation, 01 May 2024

Last year I wrote a blog outlining some of the challenges housing associations face when retrofitting heritage homes. National planning policy, inconsistent decisions across Local Planning Authorities (LPAs), and technical challenges were all identified as barriers faced by NHF members retrofitting protected homes. 

Put simply, the considerations around heritage building retrofit are greater than regular homes. Alterations to the exterior of these homes, such as the installation of double-glazing, external wall insulation, or solar panels, are likely to require planning permission. However, planning decisions can be inconsistent, denied outright and take a great deal of time to process.

With an estimated 25% of UK homes having heritage features that may restrict retrofit, this issue has serious implications for the decarbonisation of our homes (which is essential if we’re to achieve the national net zero target). But the opportunities are equally important. As Grovesnor’s report Heritage and Carbon: Addressing the Skills Gap (2023) shows, the potential economic benefits of retrofitting our historic environment are significant, amounting to £35bn and up to 290,000 new jobs.

As identified in our long-term plan for housing, a revitalised and accountable planning system will be crucial to delivering the low-carbon housing we need. So, what has changed since my blog last year?

Most significantly, the government’s long awaited response to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation was published in late 2023. The review introduced a new paragraph which gave ‘significant weight’ to energy efficiency and low-carbon heating measures. This is welcome and will hopefully provide greater clarity for LPAs when making difficult planning decisions around heritage assets.

Areas of contention remain however, particularly given that this new paragraph will be read alongside Chapter 16 of the NPPF, which focuses on heritage protection. Our response to the NPPF review outlined where the review may have gone further. Whether LPAs will give priority to the ‘significant weight’ given to environmental adaptation or to the ‘great weight’ given to heritage conservation is still unclear. As one expert put it to me, “planners will continue to live in a world of grey.”

However, the latest signals from the government are positive. In January 2024, it released a review focused on adapting heritage homes for energy efficiency. This focuses on key areas identified as potential barriers – gaps which many members might recognise from their own work.

On planning policy, the government has made two key commitments. The first is to consult on a National Development Management Plan (NDMP) specifically focused on alterations to heritage buildings. NDMPs were first proposed in the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill. They are intended to sit above local plans and minimise reproduction and inconsistency in planning policies on specific, nationally consistent areas, for example self-build.

The second is to consult on broader adoption of Local Listed Building Consent Orders (LLBCO). These allow for blanket changes made to listed buildings within a local authority, reducing the need for onerous permission processes. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are at the forefront on this, with orders in place that allow the fitting of double-glazing, secondary windows and solar panels on Grade II listed buildings.

We will be responding to both consultations this year, outlining how changes to the permissiveness of our planning system can help housing associations to retrofit as many of their residents’ homes as possible.

The review also found issues at LPA level. In Historic England’s latest Local Authority Staffing Survey, only 16% of respondents felt very confident making decisions around energy efficiency. At the same time, 59% had found retrofit casework had increased over the previous year.

Recognising this, Historic England have committed to providing training to planning staff. This includes how to apply guidance set out in their latest Advice Note. We will keep our advice page up to date with the latest Historic England guidance.

Given the acknowledgement from the government that heritage retrofit requires reform, as well as the centrality of planning to Labour’s economic policy, it is likely this area of work will continue into late 2024.

The debate is often framed as a straightforward balance between the character of a heritage building and environmental adaption, with some arguing that you cannot retrofit a home without diminishing its character. It is our belief that with sufficient government guidance and planning flexibility, our members can deliver high quality retrofit while retaining what makes these homes unique.

We are keen to hear from members working in this space to inform our consultation responses over the next year so please get in touch.