Affecting the Setting of Heritage Assets

Gail Stoten

victoria bridge bath
Distinctly modern architecture maintains an appropriate scale and a respectful distance from the Grade II* listed Victoria Bridge, Bath and the intervening space has been carefully landscaped. (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)

This article aims to provide an introduction to the setting of heritage assets and how their significance may be affected by development. It explains the key terms that should be employed to articulate this rigorously, the relevant guidance and legislation, and the appropriate case law in England.

The methodologies employed for the assessment of setting have evolved over the past 20 years, and will no doubt evolve further. No single highly-defined approach can be appropriate for all assessments.

Heritage assets are massively diverse in their nature and susceptible to a variety of impacts, and issues of experience and understanding are highly subjective. As such a flexible approach is required, giving a narrative description of the most important issues within the parameters of good practice outlined below.

There are still miss-matches of terminology and approach between the legislation, policy and guidance, which are discussed below, and a couple of areas, in particular public access, where the need to employ common sense is clearly evident.

Key Terms and Key Tests

local church setting
Churches and other buildings can gain significance through local dominance within their setting

The first key term is ‘heritage asset’. This is defined in the National Planning Policy Framework* (NPPF) for England as: a building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions, because of its heritage interest. It includes designated heritage assets and assets identified by the local planning authority (including local listing).

This refers to two types of heritage asset: those that are designated and those that are not. Designated heritage assets comprise listed buildings, scheduled monuments, conservation areas, registered parks and gardens, registered battlefields and battle sites, protected wreck sites, and world heritage sites.

Non-designated heritage assets can comprise a similar range of sites which have been identified by the local planning authority as having ‘a degree’ of heritage significance but not enough to merit designation. No lower limit is given to the level of significance required, but the mention of local listing in the definition of a heritage asset (cf NPF glossary) is a firm steer that an appreciable level of significance is required rather than any level of significance whatsoever.

Historic England have published guidance on Local Heritage Listing* which is currently under review, and there is currently a push (with funding from the government) to define heritage assets of local significance. The next term leads on from this: significance, which the quotation above defines as deriving from something having heritage interest.

  Particular views, even if not designed, can mean certain areas of a wider setting can contribute to the significance of an asset (Both photos: Gail Stoten)

The NPPF also provides a separa te definition of ‘significance (for heritage policy)’ as: the value of a heritage asset to this and future generations because of its heritage interest. The interest may be archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic. Significance derives not only from a heritage asset’s physical presence, but also from its setting.

For world heritage sites, the cultural value described within each site’s Statement of Outstanding Universal Value forms part of its significance. Hence, a heritage asset is something that has a level of heritage significance, with that deriving from its archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic interest.

Understanding these terms, which are defined in Historic England’s guidance Statements of Significance* is crucial to correctly articulating the significance of the asset, including any contribution made through setting, and getting that contribution in perspective. The definition states that some significance will be derived through physical presence, but that setting also contributes to the value of its significance.

With regards to setting, not all aspects of its setting will contribute to an asset’s significance. Rather, an area must contribute to the asset’s heritage interests (archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic) to do so. This is reflected in the NPPF’s definition of the ‘setting of a heritage asset’: 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.’

Where proposals are likely to affect the setting of a listed building (which is by far the most common type of designated heritage asset) there are two key considerations: Section 66 (1) of the 1990 Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act which requires that in considering whether to grant planning permission or permission in principle for development which affects a listed building or its setting, the local planning authority or, as the case may be, the Secretary of State shall have special regard to the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which it possesses.

The requirement of the NPPF to articulate if the significance of a heritage asset will experience harm, and if so, what level of harm. There is a miss-match of terminology here, with the Act concerning the desirability of preserving the setting, but the NPPF requiring an assessment of harm to significance, and the definitions given in the NPPF being clear that not all of a setting will contribute to the heritage significance of an asset.

However, South Lakeland1 is clear that preserving means ‘doing no harm’. Also, the two requirements were effectively brought together with the Mordue Court of Appeal Judgment of 20152, which states that: Paragraph 134 of the NPPF [now paragraph 196 of the latest version] appears as part of a fasciculus of paragraphs [each presenting a public benefit test], set out above, which lay down an approach which corresponds with the duty in section 66(1).

Generally a decision maker who works through those paragraphs in accordance with their terms will have complied with the Section 66 (1) duty. This means that by carrying out the relevant public benefit test of the NPPF, balancing the harm to heritage significance against public benefits, you are fulfilling the requirements of the Act.

It is therefore the articulation of any harm to significance through changes in setting that is key to a robust assessment of setting. With regards to other types of designated heritage asset, their setting has no statutory protection under the 1990 Act. A common mistake is to assume that Section 72 applies to the setting of conservation areas, but the wording of the Act does not make reference to conservation area’s setting as Section 66 does to the setting of listed buildings.

Key Guidance

  camelia house wardour
  The listed camelia house at Wardour, Wiltshire: if the contribution made by the setting to the significance of the heritage asset is substantial, is the loss of just a small proportion of the setting less than substantial? (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)

Historic England’s The Setting of Heritage Assets* provides the key guidance for the assessment of setting in England. This advocates a staged approach to the assessment of setting:

Step 1 Identify which heritage assets and their settings are affected.

Step 2 Assess the degree to which these settings make a contribution to the significance of the heritage asset(s) or allow significance to be appreciated.

Step 3 Assess the effects of the proposed development, whether beneficial or harmful, on that significance or on the ability to appreciate it.

Step 4 Explore ways to maximise enhancement and avoid or minimise harm.

Step 5 Make and document the decision and monitor outcomes.

These stages are set out in Historic England's Guidance, with particularly useful check lists for potential attributes of setting that may contribute to significance and the potential attributes of a development affecting setting that may affect the significance of an asset.

With regards to the approach above, there are several things to note for the completion of a robust assessment with regards to stages 1 to 3.

Firstly, as stressed at the beginning of this article, it is seldom appropriate to give in writing a consideration of all elements of the checklists and this is explicit in the guidance itself, which advocates a ‘what matters and why’ approach to assessment. Also, a narrative description often provides a much clearer assessment than use of a table or tables.

Step 1 Identifying assets that might be harmed
The first step is a logical filtering exercise, putting forward assets (such as those designated by Historic England or recorded on local Historic Environment Records) for further assessment which are likely to be intervisible or co-visible, or were clearly historically associated to an asset, or have another connection with the asset that warrants further consideration. This should be proportional, taking into account such matters as distance using maps and sometimes zones of visual influence in the first instance, and flexible, adding assets that appear sensitive during site visits.

Step 2 Consideration of significance
Historic England's guidance sets out the ways in which aspects of setting may contribute to the heritage significance of an asset or allow significance to be appreciated. Examples may be land that is part of a designed view, provides separation or isolation or facilitates key views to an asset. It should be noted that whether an area contributes to significance is not just about intervisibility or co-visibility.

Other aspects such as the historical, social and economic connections of the asset with elements of its surrounds should also be taken into account, such as former functional or ownership connections. This was demonstrated by the Steer Judgment in the Court of Appeal3.

Conversely, the Steer Judgment4 is also clear that intervisibility or co-visibility does not necessarily mean a contribution to setting, but rather there must be 'a visual relationship which is more than remote or ephemeral, and which in some way bears on ones experience of the listed building in its surrounding landscape or townscape' in order for a development to affect the setting of an asset.

This is in line with Historic England's consideration of churches within its guidance The Setting of Heritage Assets, which states that 'Being tall structures, church towers and spires are often widely visible across land and townscapes but, where development does not impact on the significance of heritage assets visible in a wider setting or where not allowing significance to be appreciated, they are unlikely to be affected by smallscale development, unless that development competes with them, as tower blocks and wind turbines may.'

This suggests that not everything that is intervisible with such an asset contributes to its significance.

Step 3 Assessing the affects of development
This step considers whether harm or benefits will occur through changes that alter the heritage interests of the asset. Harm would occur where an area that contributes to the heritage significance of an asset through setting, or allows an appreciation of its significance, changes in a way that adversely affects the heritage interests of the asset (archaeological, artistic, architectural or historic).

It cannot be stressed enough that change does not necessarily mean harm. The setting of many assets is capable of accommodating change with no resultant harm to their heritage significance. Examples of harm include the loss of an element that contributes to the significance of the asset, be that a historically associated entity, a view, dominance, or tranquillity. Again, a checklist is provided in the Historic England guidance.

A key consideration is the level of harm that would occur. It is not enough to merely identify that some harm would occur. There are clear requirements for it to be quantified. Firstly, the NPPF has different tests for different levels of harm – substantial harm and less than substantial.

Case law (Nuon5) is clear that substantial harm is a high test and that it would ‘have such a serious impact on the significance of the asset that its significance was either vitiated altogether or very much reduced’. Often setting is only a relatively small portion of the overall significance of an asset, and any one area of development will usually only remove a portion of this component in the asset’s significance, so instances where changes in setting cause a level of harm that might be assessed as substantial are infrequent.

Considering that harm through setting (if there is harm) may be less than substantial, and that this is a wide spectrum stretching from the very lowest level of harm to just less than almost total loss of significance, quantifying where on the scale of less than substantial harm an impact may lie is essential.

This is also a requirement of the current Planning Practice Guidance on the Historic Environment, which states at paragraph 18 that: Within each category of harm [substantial or less than substantial] (which category applies should be explicitly identified), the extent of the harm may vary and should be clearly articulated. In order to do this, three things must be established:

  • The proportion of the significance of the asset that derives from its physical presence and the proportion that derives from setting
  • The elements of the setting of the asset that contribute to its significance
  • Whether a proposed development would result in some loss of that significance which an asset derives from setting, and how this level of harm might best be articulated considering the whole significance of the asset.

An example to illustrate this would be a listed 18th-century farmhouse that has adjacent barns and outbuildings, and sits within a historically associated landholding of several fields.

A housing development is proposed within one field that is functionally associated and intervisible with the farmhouse. A basic (but not exhaustive) assessment of setting would be that the asset primarily derives its significance from its physical remains, but a lesser portion is derived from its setting including the associated outbuildings and some of the fields (perhaps those in the immediate vicinity that were historically associated and intervisible).

As a field that was part of the landholding, the site may contribute to the heritage significance of the asset through historic illustrative interest, but if one field is only a small proportion of the land holding (itself one element of setting), this contribution might be minor.

The development may result in a change of character of this element from agricultural land to residential, and this would comprise less than substantial harm at the low end of that spectrum to the heritage significance of the listed farmhouse. However, it should be stressed that every asset and development should be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account the baseline conditions that are unique to each asset.

An interesting issue that comes up with regards to the assessment of setting in rural areas like this, is that of public access. Historic England’s guidance states that the contribution that setting makes to the significance of a heritage asset does not depend on there being public rights or an ability to experience that setting.

However, it is only common sense to take into account public access within the landscape, with views from public rights of way being more likely to be commonly appreciated by the public. Indeed, changes to public access, use or amenity are listed as possible considerations for how development may affect the significance of an asset in Historic England’s guidance on setting.

In conclusion, the assessment of the impact of a potential development on a heritage asset should not be an exhaustive attempt to link a site to an asset or a mechanical consideration of all aspects of a checklist. It should, however, provide a simple and clear narrative account of the overall significance of an asset, the main elements of its setting that contribute to its significance, the specific contribution of the site to significance, and the reduction in significance that would result. This should be quantified as substantial or less than substantial harm, showing where within the relevant category the harm described lies.

Recommended Reading

*All these documents are available online: National Planning Policy Framework, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, updated June 2019,

Planning Practice Guidance: Historic Environment, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, updated July 2019,

Local Heritage Listing, Historic England Advice Note 7, 2016

Statement of Heritage Significance: Analysing Significance in Heritage Assets, Historic England Advice Note 12, 2019

The Setting of Heritage Assets: Historic Environment Good Practice Advice in Planning Note 3 (Second Edition) Historic England, 2017


1. South Lakeland District Council Appellants v Secretary of State for the Environment and Another Respondents, House of Lords, [1992] 2 W.L.R. 204 [1992] 2 A.C. 141

2. Aidan Jones and Jane Margaret Mordue v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and South Northamptonshire Council [2015] EWCA Civ 1243

3. Catesby Estates Ltd v. Peter Steer and Historic England [2018] EWCA Civ 1697

4. Catesby Estates Ltd v. Peter Steer and Historic England [2018] EWCA Civ 1697

5. Bedford Borough Council v. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Nuon UK Ltd, [2013] EWHC     2847


The Building Conservation Directory, 2021


Gail Stoten MCIfA FSA is Executive Director (Heritage) at Pegasus Group.

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