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How Development Changes to Settings can Impact Heritage Assets

The discussion of setting within a heritage context has long been subject to differing opinions. It is a complex area, compounded by the fact that the determination of setting, and the significance of harm upon it, is a largely subjective rather than objective one.

Heritage Assets Settings Assessment

The setting of Heritage Assets is protected under a number of legal and policy provisions across the UK, and some of these are signposted at the end of this article for further exploration.

These policies state that the impacts to heritage assets not only cover direct changes to the fabric of such structures, but also relate to potential harm on the setting, character or surroundings of such features (herein referred to under the blanket term setting).

To summarise what is a very wide-ranging set of guidance, the general requirements include the need to preserve historic buildings and their setting. To quote directly from Historic Environment Policy for Scotland:

‘There can be impact on the physical elements of a place or on its setting, if its surroundings are changed so that our understanding, appreciation or experience is altered. Changes in the historic environment can also affect people’s associations with a place or its setting, and their responses to it’.

Capturing, understanding and appreciating the setting of a heritage asset

To understand impact, one must first understand what setting means and then how to specifically define change to this, in relation to any heritage asset subject to potential change. Positive attempts have been made to do this in the past, including the multi-agency sponsored ASIDOHL2 (Assessments of the Significance of the Impact of the Development on the Historic Landscape 2nd Edition) in Wales, and The Setting of Heritage Assets: Historic Environment Good Practice Advice in Planning: 3 (Historic England) in England.

While these are both sterling examples of how one would begin to capture an understanding of the setting of a heritage asset and, thereof, an appreciation of the potential impact on such a factor, it is the author’s opinion that the assessment of setting has become more contested over time.

Historic buildings in modern settings

Whereas the overall need is to define the setting, how this contributes to the significance of a heritage asset and then to assess the impact on such significance, there is an increasing trend for heritage settings to become an obstacle to development often because of an opinion that:

  • one can see a site of proposed development from a heritage asset: and/or
  • a development would change how the land once looked at some point in the past.

While both points have some validity, and do need exploring as a wider part of any settings assessment, in isolation they miss the wider issue, specifically: what part, if any, does the current surviving setting play in the significance of the heritage asset being assessed, and would changes to that setting result in change to the significance of the asset.

Weighing up the impact to the setting of a heritage asset

In a nutshell, simply stating that X development can be seen from X heritage asset and, as a result, constitutes a heritage settings impact, or that X heritage site was originally built-in green fields so modern development would likewise result in adverse impact on its setting, is wrong in my personal opinion. Yet I have been involved in schemes where the raising of such objections from the planning authority and members of the public have been acted on, often as a key issue in relation to consideration of settings impact.

impact to settings of heritage buildings

It is my opinion that this erroneous assumption is one that should be challenged during future development applications. Heritage Setting is not simply the intervisibility of one site to another, and it is not a blanket statement that an area looked differently when originally constructed ergo modern influence can’t be experienced in a positive light. It is instead a considered and careful appreciation of how sometimes amorphous concepts, such as the land, environment, character, and appreciation of the space in and around a heritage asset, all factor into the overall significance of a heritage asset; whether it’s a large and grand space originally designed as the formal gardens of a stately home, or the formal viewshed of the Mall looking towards Buckingham Palace, right through to the back yard setting of a Victorian terrace.

When weighing up the impact to the setting of a heritage asset, the considerations that need to be looked at include, not just visual links or what the land was used for in the past, but also changes such as noise levels, environmental factors (including notable increases or decreases in particulate matter), alterations to visitor patterns, or the general massing of a structure in contrast to the current historic environment / streetscape. All these elements, and more, can draw out wider issues than a simple cross reference on the intervisibility of features.

To conclude, the treatment and assessment of setting of heritage assets is currently a largely subjective process and different planning Authorities and Statutory Consultees (such as Historic England, Cadw, or the Victorian Society, for example), approach setting in slightly different ways. Furthermore, individual sites demand a flexible approach to assessment, requiring the unique special interests and values to be recognised and placed in the context of the setting. AB Heritage therefore recommend that an experienced heritage professional is brought into the project team at the earliest opportunity, to provide advice and to consult with external stakeholders to the benefit of the application process. Read more about Cultural Heritage Environmental Statements.

Andy Buckley professional heritage consultantAndy Buckley is a Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and Managing Director of AB Heritage Ltd, a professional Archaeological Consultancy operating across the UK. www.abheritage.co.uk

Further Reading: The setting of Heritage Assets is protected under several legal and policy provisions across the UK, including: