Traditional stone longhouse with thatched roof.
Higher Uppacott Longhouse, Dartmoor National Park © Dartmoor National Park Authority
Higher Uppacott Longhouse, Dartmoor National Park © Dartmoor National Park Authority

Historic Farm Buildings - One of Our Most Precious National Assets

By Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity

I am delighted to join the launch of Historic England's new policy note and guidance on the adaptive reuse, maintenance and repair of historic farm buildings. As the documents themselves make clear, traditional farmsteads and buildings contribute to the very essence of the character of the English countryside. So I very much welcome the high quality documents, which I believe will help to provide the owners of traditional farm buildings with an excellent source of knowledge and guidance when considering their future.

As Minister for Rural Affairs, I am acutely conscious of rural interests. Over 9 million people live in rural areas in England, 17% of the population, and indeed rural areas are seeing a net migration. We cannot ignore that we must accommodate more people in rural areas, and I believe that this is in the interests of a prosperous rural economy. Yet at the same time we must ensure that we have a rural England, a rural Britain, which is beautiful.

Traditional farm buildings are part of this picture. They provide the potential opportunity for farms to develop, diversify and maintain these assets in a way which benefits all.

Over the centuries, the face of farming and the rural economy has changed. Farm buildings have left a rich historic legacy across our landscape: from the Oast houses, hop kilns and cider barns of the south and Hereford and Worcestershire, to those extraordinary, charismatic and iconic field barns of the uplands of northern England. All of these and more are part of the extraordinarily rich heritage farming has given to our built environment over time.

I am extremely fortunate to have both National Parks and Rural Affairs within my portfolio. Cultural heritage is an important part of both and there could be no better recognition of this than the Lake District's recent granting of World Heritage status by UNESCO for its beauty, farmed environment and the inspiration the landscape has provided to artists and writers. I do emphasise 'farmed environment' as it is the farming of generations which has created these extraordinary places, all entrenching the interconnection between the agricultural, cultural, heritage and landscape as one. I am really pleased that Historic England played such a part in the bid which had such a successful outcome.

While on Dartmoor recently, I was able to visit Higher Uppacott, a Grade 1 listed medieval farmhouse of national importance. When Higher Uppacott was built, wolves roamed, farmsteads were isolated and the building, a Dartmoor longhouse, was built with this in mind housing both humans and cattle under one roof. It is one of the few remaining examples of this historic building type which has retained its lower or shippon end in its original unaltered state. This remarkable building - an important part of Dartmoor heritage - is now being restored.

Our landscapes and buildings as living, working places have adapted over the years to the changing needs of the farmers and communities who live there. Landscapes have been fashioned by farmers and landowners over many generations.

It is vitally important that we continue to respect and enhance these important landscapes and the cultural heritage that resides within them. We have protections in place for our most precious landscapes and historic buildings. This should be done in a way that of course safeguards the very essence of what we wish to protect, yet also provides a contemporary life for rural communities, with prospects for families and the next generation to have places to live and work.

As the guidance on adaptive reuse suggests, not all traditional farm buildings will have a future within agriculture. New farming methods and the needs of communities move on. Where appropriate, some of these buildings will have the economic potential to provide an important asset for farm businesses and those living in rural communities.

The Government wants to see development which adds to the overall quality of the area and establishes a strong sense of place to create attractive places to live, work and visit.

Development, whether individual buildings, public and private spaces or wider area schemes, should be planned positively to achieve high quality design for communities. The National Planning Policy Framework recognises this importance and places a strong emphasis on achieving well-designed development.

Some in rural areas are seen as resistant to new development. However, I believe that well-designed, sensitive and incremental development can enhance both the landscape and character, and provide homes for the very people who are going to look after the countryside on behalf of the nation.

I therefore welcome the focus that this new guidance places on the need to understand the historic character and significance of traditional farmsteads and their buildings within their rural setting.

It is down to all of us - owners, local authorities, businesses, communities and central government - to secure the future of our historic farm buildings and the treasured landscapes within which they sit.

In respect of central government, funding under agri-environment schemes has made a significant contribution to the historic environment. Since 2001, around £160 million from previous Rural Development Programmes has been invested in a wide range of rural conservation and refurbishment projects, including the restoration of farm buildings. Countryside Stewardship continues to include the preservation of features important to the history of the rural landscape. We very much appreciate the close involvement of Historic England in developing the scheme and, in particular, some of the detailed requirements for delivering the scheme on the ground.

This is why I am really pleased that we have been working on a new set of grants supporting the restoration of traditional farm buildings. This is an excellent example of collaborative working between Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency, Historic England and the National Park Authorities of Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, Peak District, Lake District and Dartmoor.

The idea is that this funding will be available within the boundaries of these five National Parks, and will target historic farm and field barns which are critical to the landscape character in these areas, but which are recognised as being at greatest risk of redundancy.

We will confirm the funding once we have consulted on the criteria for deciding which projects to fund as we are required to do under the Rural Development Programme.

The Government has been committed in our last two manifestos to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than the one we inherited. Our 25-year Environment Plan will set out our vision for achieving this.

We will be retaining the whole body of EU environmental law so that on the day we leave the EU we have the same protections in place. But leaving the EU means that we can design our own policies for the future specifically tailored to the needs of our country, its species and habitats and farmed environment, including our historic environment.

We are committed to creating a cleaner, healthier environment so that future generations can have an even better environment - delivering the best possible outcome for the British people. That is why protecting and enhancing our environment, including our historic environment, is so important.

I recognise that it is generations of farmers and land owners who have created the farm buildings and so many of the landscapes that we all value so much today. The views of farmers and conservation organisations - including those representing the historic environment - must be reflected as we consider our future policy framework for agriculture and the environment.

Let us be clear, the British countryside, including historic farm buildings within it, is one of our most precious national assets. Its future is our generation's responsibility. We are all custodians passing on to future generations, so the success of our stewardship will be how we are judged by those who succeed us. I am determined that we can all say, in partnership, that we have played our part. What Historic England is bringing forward today is a force for good and has my endorsement and support.