Derelict farm building in the middle of a meadow with bare winter woodland in the  background.
Historic field barn in disrepair © Country Land and Business Association (CLA)
Historic field barn in disrepair © Country Land and Business Association (CLA)

Finding New Solutions

By Ross Murray, former president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA)

The notable thing about the launch of the farm buildings guidance is that it illustrates government working across boundaries, with Defra and Historic England with their sponsoring department DCMS working together which is significant.

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) members have a significant stake in heritage. Between CLA and the National Farmers' Union (NFU) we look after most of the rural land of England, and thus hundreds of thousands of traditional farm buildings - the scale is staggering. Few are listed buildings, but most are of heritage interest, and probably all of us here think they are vital parts of our landscapes.

Locally to me in Wales 16 redundant agricultural barns have been converted over a period of years (although the same principles apply in England). We now have more people working and running businesses in these converted agricultural buildings than were engaged in agriculture in 1945. That's the good news.

The bad news, and the huge challenge, is that because of changed agricultural practices and animal welfare regulations, almost all of these old buildings have become redundant. What does the term redundant mean? 'Redundant' here isn't a vague term, but a specific one. It means that in terms of their agricultural use they have lost their functionality and they can't and don't produce (directly or indirectly) the flow of income needed to pay their maintenance costs.

Those costs can be huge, it might cost anywhere between £50,000 or £100,000 or more to put one traditional farm building into repair, and then potentially thousands of pounds a year to maintain it afterwards.

That means that with no practical use, and therefore without that flow of income, these buildings are inevitably at risk and can crumble.

Over the last century probably half of these buildings have been lost. That's perhaps half a million real buildings we have lost over that time. That is 5,000 a year, or 15 a day.

15 buildings a day is a lot of lost heritage buildings, and our members hate this. They hate watching these buildings crumble, but usually there isn't much they can do about it. A few can be maintained with agri-environment funding. But inevitably at best this will only cover a small proportion.

In principle, of course, there's a solution. The solution, when heritage is redundant and at risk, is to save it wherever possible by putting it to new and sympathetic uses - uses which can fund its repair, and also, even more importantly, fund its subsequent maintenance. Thousands of heritage buildings are saved in that way every year.

Where these farm buildings are in towns, they can be and have been adapted to new uses, usually in sympathetic ways, and they have been repaired, and kept in repair. The problem is that - rather by definition - most of these farm buildings aren't in towns. They are in the country. Putting them to sympathetic new uses requires planning permission from the local authority.

It won't surprise anyone here to hear me say that the planning system is a major barrier to CLA members protecting heritage buildings like these. Planning is the CLA's biggest advice query, and half of CLA members have told us that problems with the planning system are the reason they have not undertaken an investment they wanted to, such as protecting a heritage asset. Those in protected areas such as AONBs and National Parks face even greater challenges.

In practice therefore, faced with the high cost of preparing applications, and a low expectation of success, our members are often dissuaded before they even begin to develop proposals. Though they hate this, they just have to watch these buildings fall into disuse.

This is not a handful of buildings at risk - it is hundreds of thousands. This is the biggest single category of heritage buildings at risk.

I would like to acknowledge that Government has made two significant attempts to help. Firstly, the National Planning Policy Framework (particularly paragraphs 51, 54 and 55) does have very clear policies encouraging adaptation, but these positive messages have not been translated into planning approvals.

Secondly, there are the 2015 Class Q and R permitted development categories, which are supposed to allow residential or commercial adaptation. However, figures show that a high proportion of these applications are rejected, and there have been very few successful applications for heritage farm buildings. Moreover, in areas within an AONB or National Park these permitted development rights are not available at all and proposals for adaptation can be strongly resisted. It would be wrong of me not to take this opportunity to highlight that an extension of PD rights for redundant farm buildings into AONBs and National Parks would help heritage owners save large numbers of heritage buildings that will otherwise be lost.

So the traditional farm building challenge is still probably as acute today as it's ever been.

Now there is help from Historic England in these excellent and welcome new advice documents. Firstly, and very importantly, like earlier advice it gives good guidance on maintenance, and on understanding farm buildings and their surroundings, and on ensuring that adaptation is sympathetic. All that is crucial.

But what's also crucial in this advice is the "use them or lose them" message. These buildings are vital to our landscapes, but (as the advice says) "the majority are redundant", and "without appropriate uses to fund their long-term maintenance and repair, they will disappear from the landscape". The advice stresses that "new commercial, residential, and other uses that enhance their historic character are to be encouraged". It says that this "is a sustainable option, taking into account the wide range of benefits…", and that local authorities should take account of the desirability… of putting them to viable uses…". [HE Advice Note 9, pages 1-2].

Of course, this excellent Historic England advice by itself won't solve the problem overnight. But it might be just the beginning of a new chapter for these unique and much loved buildings.

Now, almost all of these farm buildings fall into one category, a 'last-chance-saloon' category that means they crumble and disappear. In future, we might be able to put them into two categories, categories that don't crumble and disappear.

Firstly, there is a minority of cases where either the building is genuinely too sensitive to adapt, or where there would be insufficient market demand if it were to be adapted to an alternative use. Provided we keep this category of building realistically small, it might be possible to maintain them with appropriate public support. Such funding is possible if as the CLA and many others are advocating we move money away, post Brexit, from per-hectare income support for farmers, and focus it much more on paying for environmental public benefits. The CLA for example is suggesting that post Brexit a Land Management Contract is introduced, which would provide a framework and a mechanism for that. In this way owners would be promised long term funding to maintain redundant heritage buildings for public benefit, and would be paid under a contract provided they did. That would be a big step forward, but obviously it cannot cover more than a small proportion.

Secondly, therefore, for most of these buildings, the solution needs to be careful and sympathetic adaptation to new uses, following Historic England's advice. That needs local authorities to take a positive approach, based on design and appropriateness and on giving more weight to saving heritage. The basis of decision-making needs to be different. Put simply, proposals which follow Historic England's advice, where they are sympathetic, and well-designed, should get consent, wherever they are. Proposals that don't follow Historic England's advice, shouldn't get consent.

This way, local authorities and applicants would spend much less resource arguing about notions of "unsustainability", and much more resource on good analysis, and good design. This would then create a virtuous circle of more and better adaptations, significant investment which in turn would build skills in design and adaptation, and inspire more and better adaptations elsewhere. Given time, I do believe this would help save many of these redundant farm buildings.

So our message is one of real hope, at last we can all begin to solve this problem. But it's also about the need for a lot of hard work and partnership. Historic England, the rest of the heritage sector, local authorities, the CLA, farm building owners, and many others will have to work hard to get this message across and to get this virtuous circle to happen.

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