Stone farm building with grey slate tile roof set in fields bordered by dry stone walls with large trees dotted around and a dry stone wall running in front of the house.
Barn conversion that's home to the Taylor family, dairy farmers on White Peak in the Derbyshire Peak District © National Farmers Union
Barn conversion that's home to the Taylor family, dairy farmers on White Peak in the Derbyshire Peak District © National Farmers Union

Traditional Farm Buildings and their Landscapes Reflecting Histories of Change

By Guy Smith, Vice President, National Farmers Union

I welcome the sympathetic attitude to understanding the practical challenge farmers go through on their day to day basis when it comes to producing food in the British countryside.

Farmers manage 70% of UK land area and are part of the largest manufacturing sector in the British countryside. We underpin the largest part the British economy's food and drink sector worth £109 billion in 2015/16 and employing 3.6 million people. As we repatriate policy and policy making back from Brussels with Brexit for the first time in 45 years we are on the brink of a potentially enormous revolution in the way we manage our countryside and agriculture. We must as farmers seize this opportunity, we mustn't be fatalistic about this.

I am sure with the right policies we'll see a flowering of British agriculture and a flowering of our rural areas. I am also mindful that with bad policies we could end up with a situation where this country becomes more dependent on imports for its food needs. My key metric for judging whether Brexit will be a success or failure is to judge it on the impact it has on the ability of this country to provide food for its own needs, or has dependence on other parts of the world where standards are different.

Farm land is widely accessible and traditional farm buildings have never been more visible or cherished for their landscape value. Farmers are not only the custodian's of this rural treasure trove, but help ensure that these landscapes and buildings play their part in producing the food we need and that wider rural life is supported.

Farm businesses need to become more productive, to adapt to climate change, health and safety requirements. This means new farm buildings will be needed and traditional buildings will continue to become redundant or underused.

Farm businesses have evolved since many of their traditional buildings were erected and will continue to adapt to meet modern farming techniques and consumer tastes, from high quality English lamb to herbs and salads and fine wines.

Farm businesses have faced many challenges which have helped accelerate the decline of their traditional business stock. Extreme climate events will continue to increase and can have a devastating impact on buildings. It will take many years for Cumbria farms and the historic landscape to recover for example and many farms will look different as they seek to improve their farm buildings to meet modern regulations and changing trading environments. Animal stores, for example are now designed to be well ventilated and to achieve better space standards for the animals (many of whom would not fit within some traditional farm buildings now).

Well-designed modern buildings, incorporating energy saving and environmental safeguards will replace traditional farm buildings. These modern livestock buildings are wooden clad and incorporate a slurry store which prevents wider environmental pollution. This will happen for buildings within farmyards across the country as well as to those being targeted in upland and more isolated locations.

The future will also be challenging. The average income for a UK farm business in less favoured areas based on grazing livestock was £19,000 in 2015/16. Farm borrowing, in some cases just to maintain the farm businesses, is at all-time high. Farming families will look to how they can use their traditional farm buildings to help ensure farm succession and to support the wider farming business. According to Defra figures 62% of farm businesses have diversified activities on farm in 2015/2016. Many of the easier to convert agricultural buildings have come forward to provide rural services, retail, business and leisure space as well as to support rural tourism.

Anecdotal evidence is that this is far more tricky in remoter areas, where businesses are off main roads and away from the main tourist destinations even though they can still be in historic and protected landscapes. For many farming families it has been easier to find work away from the farm, whilst the farm itself commonly cannot provide an income for more than one farmer, who has to work more intensively to support the business. Social and economic issues have therefore impacted on the future of many traditional farm buildings.

We are aware that the record on repair and restoration of farm buildings can be quite patchy. In most cases there will be a reason why a building has not been converted or has fallen into disrepair beyond the fact it no longer meets modern agricultural needs. It may be located in isolated landscapes, may be difficult to provide services too, it may be too expensive to convert because of its size and configuration. It may also be due to a local authority planning policy which sought to retain the traditional look of a farm yard in Victorian times, rather than see the need for a building to evolve to a future use.

We welcome the guidance and the way that Historic England has made an effort to talk to farmers on the ground to understand their problems. Our desire now is that the guidance documents imbed themselves in those places where decisions are taken.

Some rural groups would prefer agricultural buildings to remain as attractive ruins but this does not help the farming business.

One size will not fit all and rural buildings need to be able to adapt. Many buildings are in disrepair because they cannot be found an affordable re-use. The National Farmers Union (NFU) welcomes guidance that will quickly establish whether a farm yard contains buildings which are suitable for conversion and what the ground rules will be.

If buildings cannot be re-used they need to be prioritised for repair at a cost a farmer can afford or be supported to repair.

NFU members have also experienced greater uncertainty; cost and time delays from a planning system that cannot approve farm applications quickly. Only 20% of farm planning applications were dealt with in eight weeks according to a NFU town planning survey in spring 2017. Local authorities and National Park Authorities need to be given confidence to bring forward buildings for repair and re-use.

We therefore welcome the fact Natural England and Historic England are here today, to ensure solutions can be found that enable environmental and historic issues to be addressed in common cause.

Barn owls and wildlife are part of the wider farming story, but can be encouraged to flourish. In the case of the farm pictured below, young barn owls are being brought up in a conservation box.

Converted farm buildings can make great homes and can be a cost effective way of ensuring the re-use of a traditional farm building.

The picture above shows one of three farm buildings converted by the Taylor family who have a high protein dairy farm on the White Peak in the Derbyshire Peak District. All three barns are lived in by the family's daughters with the most recent right next to the dairy barn, so the young family can stay in bed whilst their mum milks the cows.

There has also been a lot of opposition and indeed snobbery around the value of the permitted development right introduced by the Government in 2014. This should have encouraged some traditional farm buildings to come forward to provide much needed homes. In reality the number of barns which farmers could afford to convert was far lower. Strict interpretation of the planning rules however made the situation far worse. Barn conversions have the highest number of planning refusals and many traditional farm buildings fail the strict structural tests.

Traditional farm buildings and their landscapes reflect long histories of change. Many farmers have managed their land for generations. Let's ensure that these buildings can play a part in protecting farming futures.

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