In one sense, this issue is even more fundamental to people's understanding of their social and cultural history than the conservation of urban built heritage. Almost everyone has roots only a few generations back in an essentially agrarian society. The character of that rural past is apparent in surviving historic landscapes and rural buildings and settlements, which for an increasing proportion of the population provide a vital counterpoint to the harshness of modern city life.
So it is no surprise that some 30,000 farm buildings form the largest single category of listed historic buildings, or that they number only around six per cent of all the traditional rural structures that still survive. Yet more than seven per cent of those listed are in serious disrepair because the economics of farming today cannot maintain them, even if the farmers could find the necessary specialist builders and craftsmen. The rate of conversion to other more viable uses, especially housing, is increasing. But there seems to be a profound lack of confidence that quality is high enough.
The planners controlling such conversions must apply stringent design criteria while being sufficiently flexible to allow necessary uses to flourish. Many cases are difficult to resolve, but to lose essential historic character is to lose much of the purpose of the exercise. English Heritage and the Countryside Agency will shortly publish advice about maintaining living buildings in a living landscape along with a guide to good practice in farm building conversion. Meanwhile, it should not be necessary to remind local authorities that medieval barns and plastic windows do not mix.
Our outstanding heritage of agricultural buildings is joined in the English Heritage list of rural priorities by threatened historic parkland, crumbling parish churches and coastal archaeological sites threatened by flooding.
But there is optimism that more resources will flow into rural conservation through agri-environment schemes funding heritage management. It is indisputable that money invested in this way supports rural tourism, an essential aspect of many local economies. This survey begins the task of providing the hard information about the rural heritage through which further spending from the Heritage Lottery Fund and government can be justified.
There remains, however, an underlying and unresolved tension between those in the rural lobby who regard development in the countryside as everywhere inimical to rural conservation and others who welcome it as essential to the proper housing and employment of rural communities. Planning, as always, has to hold the ring.