Farm Buildings and Traditional Farmsteads
Read our advice on pre-application assessment, conversion and maintenance of traditional and historic farm buildings and also understand how we have developed new ways of understanding the historic character, survival and use of farmsteads.
Traditional farmsteads and their buildings are heritage assets which, through all types of use, make a significant contribution to the local character and distinctiveness, communities and economies of rural areas. Future change including conversion to new uses is inevitable, as they continue to fall out of farming use. This page provides advice and guidance on:
- Pre-application assessment, the conversion of buildings to new uses and their maintenance
- Understanding traditional farmsteads and buildings which will help you understand the historic character, significance and issues for change at a national and local level across England
- Historic England's approach to future change
Pre-application assessment, conversion and maintenance
Farmstead assessment framework
The Farmstead Assessment Framework will help you identify the issues and potential for change before the planning and design process, based on understanding the historic character and significance of a whole site in its landscape. This can reveal opportunities for conservation and enhancement, from buildings capable of adaptive reuse to those whose fabric or the wider landscape setting requires further consideration and understanding.
Guidance to help secure sustainable development and the conservation of traditional farmsteads and their buildings through the planning system.Learn more
This advice note explains how significance can be retained and enhanced through well-informed maintenance and sympathetic development, provided that repairs, design and implementation are carried out to a high standard.Learn more
This advice explains how significance can be retained and enhanced through well-informed maintenance and sympathetic development, provided that repairs, design and implementation are carried out to a high standard.Learn more
This guidance provides practical advice to farmers, land managers and others involved with the maintenance and repair of traditional farm buildings.Learn more
Understanding traditional farmsteads and buildings
Our guidance and research, which includes mapping the historic character and survival of traditional farmsteads in different parts of England, shows how they make a significant contribution to the character and local distinctiveness of rural landscapes.
For more information on the historic character and significance of farmsteads see:
- National Farmsteads Character Statement for a summary of the historic character, significance and issues for change with reference to England’s National Character Areas
- National Farm Building Types for guidance on the range of building types encountered on farmsteads
- The Historic Farmsteads: Preliminary Character Statements (see publications below), a series of eight regional documents produced in 2006 which set out the historic character and development of farmsteads in the context of their landscapes and agricultural history:
- More detailed regional guidance and reports on the West Midlands and South East England, using the results of Farmsteads Mapping and research undertaken since 2006.
- We continue to support the production of Farmstead Assessment Guidance with AONBs (Kent Downs, The High Weald, Nidderdale and the North Pennines), National Parks (Dartmoor, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District) and in the following counties – Cornwall, Kent, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Wiltshire. For more on the techniques used for rapid assessment and mapping see our Farmsteads Characterisation article.
Our approach to future change
Pressures for change
Historic farmsteads and their buildings are heritage assets which, through continued maintenance, conservation and reuse, make a fundamental contribution to the richly varied character of the English countryside and to its economies and communities. Most traditional farm buildings date from the 19th century, rarely before, and only a very small proportion - usually older and more architecturally significant buildings - are protected through listing. The vast majority form part of farmsteads which include other traditional buildings.
Structural changes in the farming industry have required farmers to construct new buildings that reduce labour costs and conform to animal welfare regulations. As a result of this, and the demand for living in rural areas, many traditional farm buildings are largely redundant for modern agricultural purposes. They have been under the greatest threat - of neglect on one hand, and insensitive development on the other - of any rural building type. In many areas fewer than half of surviving traditional farmsteads are maintained through active agricultural use.
In future years the pace of change will accelerate further in response to the restructuring and diversification of farm businesses and the increasing demand for living and working in rural landscapes. Maintaining and where appropriate reusing farm buildings which no longer have a viable agricultural use is a sustainable option, taking into account the a wide range of benefits that they offer:
- They make an essential contribution to England’s remarkably varied landscape character and local distinctiveness, telling us about how the land was settled and how our ancestors farmed and lived, thought and built
- They represent an historical investment in materials and energy, often exemplifying the crafts and skills associated with local building materials and techniques, that can be sustained through conservation and careful re-use
- They provide an important economic asset for farm businesses or, through adaptive re-use where they have become redundant, a high-quality environment for new rural businesses including home-based working
- They are irreplaceable repositories of local crafts, skills and techniques, in harmony with their surroundings and using traditional materials, often closely related to the local geology, that are sometimes not available or too expensive for new building projects
- They may provide important wildlife habitats
Historic England's approach
Ever since the publication in 2006 of 'Living Buildings in a Living Landscape: Finding a Future for Traditional Farm Buildings', and the research that underpinned it, our approach has been based on developing better understanding of the character, condition and sensitivity to change of farm buildings and the relationship of farmsteads to the wider landscape. Historic England will continue to:
- Work at a national, regional and local scale to enhance the evidence base on the historic, landscape and economic character and potential of farm buildings, in accordance with the principles set out in the National Planning Framework
- Develop understanding of traditional farmsteads and their buildings and landscapes, at the building, farmstead and landscape level
- Promote positive means of managing change for areas and sites which align this understanding of the historic character of farmsteads with their potential for and sensitivity to change
- Promote appropriate and high-quality design, both traditional and contemporary, including appropriate detailing, materials and craftsmanship and the setting of buildings. Raise awareness of the historic, landscape and socio-economic importance of traditional farm buildings, including detailed analysis and assessment
- Support Defra and Natural England in directing grant aid under Countryside Stewardship to the most significant areas and building types which are also least capable of adaptive reuse
This approach is based on work we have completed in the last ten years. 'Constructing the Evidence Base', published in 2005, provided for the first time statistically robust national and regional estimates of the structural condition and adaptive reuse of listed farm buildings, including the rates of change since the 1980s resurveys of listed buildings in rural areas. It demonstrated that:
- A significant proportion of redundant listed farm buildings are in an advanced state of structural decay, and over half of all listed farm buildings have been subject to planning applications for development
- The overwhelming majority of conversions (over 80%) are for residential use, despite planning policies that favour employment and business uses
- Pressures for change will continue and accelerate in some areas, as farmers seek to rationalise their businesses and construct new infrastructure
'Living Buildings in a Living Landscape: Finding a Future for Traditional Farm Buildings', published in 2006, used the results of this work to produce a national overview of the importance of traditional farm buildings, the drivers of change that affect their management and regional summaries of their historic character. It also stated that the starting point for future policy must be an understanding of the character, condition and sensitivity to change of farm buildings and the relationship of farm steadings to the wider landscape. The development of new techniques to develop an evidence base was first reported on in 'Historic Farm Buildings: Extending the Evidence Base' (2009). It summarised how:
- The 'Photo Image Survey' has collected evidence of visible structural failure and adaptive reuse of listed farm building by comparing 1980s with 1999-2006 photographs
- 'Farmsteads Mapping' has enhanced local Historic Environment Records by mapping the historic character, survival and landscape context of all traditional farmsteads in different parts of England, and also in some selected areas their present-day use. The techniques and completed projects are summarised in our
Farmsteads Characterisation page.
The implications of this research for future change across England are summarised in 'Assessment for the Reuse of Traditional Farm Buildings'. In summary:
- Traditional farmsteads are heritage assets which make a significant and highly varied contribution to the rural building stock, landscape character and local distinctiveness.
Over 70% of traditional farmsteads in existence at the beginning of the 20th century have retained some or all of their historic form, this being highest in upland areas and lowest in some coastal marshlands and arable vales. Variations in their historic form or layout, and the date of all recorded farmsteads and buildings, is closely linked to how the landscapes around them has changed over centuries – particularly fields, common land and whether rural settlement developed from villages or was scattered.
- Statutory designations affect a small proportion of those farmsteads that contribute to local character.
The criteria for selection have focused attention on the older and more visually impressive structures, particularly farmhouses and barns, rather than the full range of farmstead building types. In addition, the list does not include all buildings that fulfil published criteria, due to the incomplete nature of survey. Some areas with the fewest listed buildings have the highest survival of traditional farmsteads, upland areas being particularly significant in this respect. Other areas, including those which are considered to have out-of-date lists, have high densities of pre-1700 buildings which still await recording and discovery.
- Traditional farmsteads are heritage assets which, through conservation and reuse, make a significant contribution to rural economies and communities.
Most traditional farmsteads are no longer in farming use, sometimes as low as one third but much higher in upland areas where farming families are both extremely significant for their local communities but have been subject to increasing financial pressure. Studies in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales have demonstrated the benefits of Countryside Stewardship grants for conservation repair. Data for listed and unlisted buildings has consistently revealed the difficulty of finding a commercial use (around 10% of the total) for surviving traditional farmsteads, whether designated or not. Residential use is more often used for home-based entrepreneurial businesses than any other kind of urban or rural property.