Here at Planning Ventures, as well as sitting on Bristol’s Conservation Advisory Panel, we find ourselves increasingly involved in development projects with a heritage element. Be it Conservation Areas, listed buildings or sites with high archaeological potential, heritage assets are all around us and can often make for challenging but rewarding schemes.

To keep up to speed with this discipline, we frequently refer to Historic England for updates and guidance on heritage matters as they might affect our projects, and are inspired by the information they provide. Did you know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civic Amenities Act (1967) which first introduced the concept of Conservation Areas, such that there are now more than 10,000 of these places of special architectural or historic interest in England alone, spanning 2.2% of the country?

On a more practical level, we tuned into a very useful HE webinar recently concerning ‘Settings’ and heritage assets. Littered with case studies from Yorkshire, presenter Neil Redfern provided a clear and succinct summary of the principles and legislative background to Setting, how it should be assessed and the contribution it can make to the significance of a heritage asset. It was an invaluable reminder to us of how to approach the assessment process. Here are a few key pointers from what we learned, should you need to know for your next heritage project:

What is Setting?

Setting is officially defined 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 (NPPF, 2012)’. To elaborate, it is not the same as curtilage. It’s not just views, but can encompass any smells, sounds or physical attributes which form part of the character and context of the Heritage Asset. It’s not a fixed reference point, it can change over time and can also help to understand how different assets relate to each other.

How is it Enforced?

Setting is only a statutory matter in relation to listed buildings (under Section 66 of the Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act 1990) and not for scheduled monuments or Conservation Areas (although Conservation Areas will encompass setting and so still effectively cover it). Also, whilst all heritage assets have a setting of some form or another, ‘Setting’ has no significance or statutory weight in its own right – it must be assessed in relation to an asset.

What is the Method of Assessment?

HE Good Practice Advice Note ‘The Setting of Heritage Assets’ (2015) is the first port of call here, and sets out a broad 5-stage approach to assessment that can be applied proportionately to complex or more straightforward cases alike. The steps involve: identifying which heritage assets and their settings are affected; assessing whether, how and to what degree these settings make a contribution to the significance of the heritage asset; assessing the effects of the proposed development, whether beneficial or harmful, on that significance; exploring ways to maximise enhancement and avoid or minimise harm; and, making and documenting the decision and monitoring outcomes.

What value is this ‘Significance’?

As per the 5-stage method, the significance of the heritage asset must be assessed in the first instance. HE document ‘Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance’ (2008) identifies four heritage-values for considering significance, and neatly defines them as: Evidential Value (what can we actually see of the asset?); historical (what do we know about a place, tends to be illustrative or associative); Aesthetic (what does a place make you feel like, this can be the result of conscious design, or fortuitous in the way it has evolved); and, Communal (what does the place mean for everyone, in a commemorative, social or spiritual sense).

What contribution ‘Setting’?

Once the significance of the Asset is established, the contribution of its Setting can then be determined. This is assessed by means of a range of qualitative values (whether the contribution is critical; contributes to; is part of; neutral or negative/detrimental to the Heritage Asset). It’s a robust method of assessment which isn’t necessary for every heritage value of the asset, but does result in a strong understanding of its Setting.

Impacts of Development

Finally, once the contribution of the Setting has been determined, the effects of the development proposals on this are assessed, along with any measures which might mitigate or enhance the situation. A further useful tool here is to identify any ‘prominent’ or ‘dominant’ features (these are two different attributes) within a setting, and assess how they might actually be reinforced or affected through new development.

In short, the evaluation of Setting can be a complex process which really demands a holistic appreciation of the entire heritage asset. The HE assessment methods clearly have time and resource implications for applicants, although they are intended to be proportionate to each development and we believe they provide a logical framework for ascribing heritage value – basically the more robust the analysis up-front, the less time and cost wasted later on in the application process.

We’re constantly striving to have a better understanding of our sites and this webinar was a useful prompt to focus our analytical skills. We’ll be keeping a keen eye on HE for further updates that will continue to enhance our appreciation of all things heritage.