If you work in the planning sector or have ever submitted an application yourself, then you may have come across the term ‘public benefit’. What sounds like a relatively straightforward term is actually considerably more nuanced than one might think, and can present a problem for applicants looking to alter a listed building or a building within a conservation area. Even more so if that building happens to be a private house.
What is Public Benefit?
Paragraph 202 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that:
‘Where a development proposal will lead to less than substantial harm to the significance of a designated heritage asset, this harm should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal including, where appropriate, securing its optimum viable use.’
What this means is that, in the event a proposal will result in less than substantial harm to the significance of a listed building, for example, the ‘test’ within Paragraph 202 is triggered and this ‘harm’ – in order to be deemed acceptable from a planning perspective – must be outweighed by a public benefit. In some cases, this is clearly demonstrable, such as works to a listed school building improving overall safety for pupils, staff, and members of the public, or supplying affordable housing as part of a residential development.
In others, what counts as a ‘public benefit’ – particularly in private domestic dwellings – can be a bit more of a grey area. On the face of it, it seems difficult how one could demonstrate public benefit in a private dwelling, as the usual socio-economic go to’s don’t really apply. A private individual making changes to their home will generally only benefit them and their family, right? It can therefore be immensely frustrating when local authorities make public benefit a requirement as, at first glance, it seems an impossible criterion to fulfil. However, a broader interpretation of public benefit can offer some wiggle room in ensuring the narrative and overall impacts of your proposal becomes a positive one overall.
What Counts as Public Benefit?
Generally speaking, a public benefit refers to anything which aids the delivery of the economic, social, or environmental objectives of sustainable development described in Paragraph 8 of NPPF. Specifically, these comprise:
‘an economic objective – to help build a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right types is available in the right places and at the right time to support growth, innovation and improved productivity; and by identifying and coordinating the provision of infrastructure
a social objective – to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by ensuring that a sufficient number and range of homes can be provided to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by fostering well-designed, beautiful and safe places, with accessible services and open spaces that reflect current and future needs and support communities’ health, social and cultural well-being; and
an environmental objective – to protect and enhance our natural, built and historic environment; including making effective use of land, improving biodiversity, using natural resources prudently, minimising waste and pollution, and mitigating and adapting to climate change, including moving to a low carbon economy.’
The final point regarding environmental objectives is perhaps the most pertinent, especially for homeowners looking to adapt their historic buildings to be more energy efficient. The lack of consistency when it comes to the party line on adapting to climate change within local authorities, especially as it relates to historic buildings, is stark and can often result in obstructive discourse and/or blanket refusal of schemes. However, national policy clearly states in no uncertain terms that energy efficiency – even in a private dwelling – is classed as a public benefit, contributing to the overall reduction of carbon emissions within the UK.
Of course, every case is different and the merits of the overall improvements must be balanced against the scale of harm; however, this provides a light at the end of the tunnel for householder clients who may have otherwise struggled to demonstrate a public benefit resulting from alterations to their private homes. Alterations ranging from replacement double glazing and draught-proofing to insulation and the installation of alternative energy sources, such as solar panels or ground-source heat pumps, could all – in the right circumstances – be considered an overall ‘public benefit’, if the result is improved thermal and energy efficiency.
If your proposed development is considered to trigger the ‘test’ requiring clear and convincing justification in the form of public benefit, then advice from an experienced heritage consultant can prove invaluable and be the difference between a refusal and consent. Get in touch with Blue Willow Heritage today for free, no obligation advice on whether a case can be made and let us help turn that ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.