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Working in Partnerships to Find Solutions

By Sir Laurie Magnus, Chairman, Historic England

Historic England warmly welcomes the Minister’s endorsement of the value and importance of the inter-generational legacy that our heritage represents.

Our revised farm buildings guidance represents the culmination of work which Historic England and its predecessors have been doing over several years. We have listened to views expressed in the consultations and commissioned research to understand both the threats to these buildings, and the opportunities that they might provide. This has resulted in us making significant changes in our guidance and in our stance.

Historic England should not be seen as an organisation that says no, acting as a blocker of progress. We fully recognise that, in order to endure and to survive, heritage needs to be viable, often with new life being breathed into it. We recognise that there have been huge changes in the nature of rural England. Farming incomes have been under pressure, and in response, farm businesses need more than ever before to diversify. Brexit will represent both an opportunity, but also a further challenge in this respect.

In many cases, our traditional farm buildings have become completely redundant because they cannot accommodate modern methods of farming. Without a viable use, these buildings become too expensive to maintain, leading too often to dereliction and loss. In the past, English Heritage (now Historic England) and local authorities tended not to support reuse, something I experienced myself 15 years ago.

Chairman of Historic England speaking at a lecturn
Sir Laurie Magnus, Chairman, Historic England © Historic England

In the 1960s, there were around 1.1 million working farm buildings in this country on around 300,000 farm holdings. There are now just 186,000 holdings and 30% of traditional farmsteads extant at the beginning of the 20th century have now gone completely. Very few traditional working farm buildings were listed and we estimate that over half of them have disappeared over the last 50 years. A much greater proportion of field barns have disappeared (almost 70% of those that existed 100 years ago). Something needed to change in the light of this.

Historic England has applied the principle of 'constructive conservation'  to help bring solutions for historic buildings which enable them to be used sustainably and in a viable fashion. Our hope is that the new guidance will be of direct help to the owners of these buildings, developers, heritage professionals, builders and farmers.

Our guidance states that, in most cases, adaptive reuse of these buildings is likely to be acceptable on heritage grounds providing that design fully takes into account the significance and sensitivity of the building and its setting. Our advice therefore promotes reuse as a positive way of managing change.

The new advice is supported by two further guidance documents on reuse and on maintenance and repair, and sits alongside our Farmsteads Assessment Framework of 2015. The design of new uses needs to respect the character and historic setting, use appropriate materials and, wherever possible, embrace traditional craftsmanship. New build can be considered in conjunction with adaptation where it is right for the setting and reinforces the historic character.

Farm building with missing tiles, flaking render and overgrown foreground.
Dereliction is a significant and increasing problem facing traditional farm buildings © Historic England

In a few cases it may be impossible to find a way forward, perhaps because of particular sensitivity or remoteness, or simply because the building design does not lend itself well to adaptation. In these circumstances, we hope that it will be possible to find grant aid in some form to help owners to maintain and conserve these buildings, and to retain their significance, in the same way that grant aid is available for churches. Many farm buildings, in my view, are as important as churches in contributing to the beauty and the character of the English landscape.

Our challenge is to get the message out that, in most cases, change is possible and that these buildings can be adapted for re-use. We are very keen to work in partnership with Defra, the National Parks, Natural England, Country Land and Business Association (CLA), National Farmers' Union (NFU), Historic Houses Association (HHA), local authorities and others in getting this message across. Conservation officers and planning officers in local authorities are under huge pressure. They need to know that we are there to help support and advise them in this respect. The preservation and the adaptation of these significant buildings, for viable uses, can play a major role in the regeneration of the rural economy, by  helping to re-invigorate local communities by providing jobs and housing. This is not something that Historic England can do on its own - we can only achieve all of this by working in partnership.

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