The guidelines "sent out a clear message" on green spaces, Victorian stations or canal sides for imaginative developments, said housing and planning minister John Healey.
The policy, accompanied by guidance from English Heritage, said the historic environment should "stimulate and inspire" imaginative buildings and development.
"Councils need to monitor all historic assets," Healey said. "If you're redeveloping your town centre you should make the most of existing streetscapes, canal sides or old breweries."
The policy also said historic environments should be viewed in the context of climate change. Modification should result in reduced CO2 emissions.
"We need to protect what is significant and make the most of its potential with quick, imaginative planning decisions. Historic areas are assets, not obstacles."
Culture minister Barbara Follett said: "This is a milestone in our programme of reforms to create a heritage-protection system fit for the 21st century."
English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley said: "This should cut the number of poorly thought-through applications."
The policy focuses the mind on understanding what is significant about a landscape or building to make it easier to determine the impact of the proposed change.
It urges councils to monitor all their historic assets by creating publicly accessible historic environment records that developers will be expected to consult.
It throws more emphasis on pre-application planning and discussion so councils and developers can learn about the significance of heritage assets before designs are drawn up.
The new Planning Policy Statement 15: Planning for the Historic Environment replaces planning policy guidance notes 15 and 16.
The policy is accompanied by the Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide.