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By Vince Holyoak, Head of Rural and Environmental Advice, Historic England

Less than half of England's population were working in agriculture by 1725 - a figure that had dropped to under 10% by 1900. Indeed, prior to the industrial revolution, agriculture was our primary industry, representing the powerhouse of England's economy. That is not to say that the rise of other industries saw farming wither away - far from it.

Successive waves of capital investment, technological innovation and mechanisation have seen the industry continue to transform itself into one of the most efficient in the world. As a result, today it produces 60% of our food needs with just 2% of the labour force. But this has not happened without a cost.

Whilst our transition from a rural, agrarian society to a largely urban, industrial one occurred in a little under 200 years, it led to the fracture and dislocation of many rural communities - communities who had often worked and shaped our land over much longer periods. In parallel, if the story of England over the past millennia was its agricultural communities, then its working farm buildings - whether modest vernacular examples or 19th century model farms - have also come to epitomise the special character of our rural landscapes. But whilst undoubtedly significant and special, we cannot assume that they have left an indelible impression upon the landscape - the stark statistics around dereliction and loss tell us otherwise.

Stone open-fronted farm building storing a farm vehicle, bike, wood and bales of hay.
Cart sheds often include overhead granaries. Waggon houses, designed to shelter a loaded waggon overnight, are much larger than simple cart sheds and were normally open at both ends, although some have now been closed off at one end © Historic England

The modernisation of our farming industry began long before many other European countries, and whilst the wholesale functional redundancy of traditional farm buildings may be a relatively new phenomenon in some places, in England it has been occurring for decades.

In the same way that the challenge this presents has not arisen overnight - Historic England also recognises that there is no magic bullet, and a solution will take time, collaboration and further innovation. However, rural economies, communities and businesses need to develop and to grow as they have always done, and in this respect finding new uses for those traditional farm buildings which are now redundant but lend themselves to adaptation should represent a real opportunity.

Huge challenges remain - but as the preceding articles have demonstrated, the release of Historic England's new guidance has sparked a long overdue conversation on this very important topic.

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