Audit highlights plight of disused rural assets

Old farm buildings need sympathetic conversions and more funding, says Christina Papas.

The farming industry has suffered some cruel blows over the past decade from strong global competition, the BSE outbreak and foot-and-mouth disease.

While these issues remain at the forefront of farmers' minds, caring for traditional farm buildings and investing in major repairs lag far behind. This is one of the key concerns highlighted in English Heritage's annual audit of the historic environment (Planning, 18 November, p3).

England has more than half a million traditional farm buildings, of which around 30,000 are listed. But changing agricultural practice and economic pressures make them highly vulnerable. Thousands of barns, byres, dovecotes, outhouses and stables are at risk from dereliction.

English Heritage estimates that 2,420 listed farm buildings are in a severe state of disrepair and face a bill of £30 million. Agricultural reuse is unlikely to provide the answer. "Some smaller farm buildings are very hard to reuse. It is difficult to reverse a 20-tonne trailer into a medieval barn," says Save Britain's Heritage secretary Adam Wilkinson.

Farm diversification has been identified as a more promising route. Almost a third of listed working farm buildings have already been converted.

Around 57 per cent have been subject to planning applications since 1980, of which 80 per cent have been approved.

"Diversification is one way to go, but it must be well funded and sustainable," insists National Farmers' Union (NFU) planning adviser David Glasson.

"The statistics show that most applications are approved, but there is still an issue with finding sustainable sites. Many farms are not in the right location."

Visual impact is another concern. Collapsed buildings, domestic clutter, obtrusive satellite dishes, inappropriate ornamental trees and subdivided plots all feature on English Heritage's list of unsuccessful residential conversions. The agency is due to issue guidelines on the best way to convert farms next year.

RTPI historic environment panel convenor Denis McCoy sees residential use as the least desirable solution. "Holiday homes are different," he argues. "They do not have private gardens, glasshouses, garden sheds, tennis courts or swimming pools. They are predominantly used in the summer and do not have the same requirements as all-year houses."

Meanwhile, cash injections to help restore traditional farm buildings are paying dividends. A six-year £6 million DEFRA programme in the Lake District has ensured the future of 655 farm buildings, generated up to £13.1 million for the local economy and created 30 full-time jobs.

But private owners are often left to carry the burden. A recent survey by the Country Land and Business Association revealed that the average respondent spends £29,000 a year on maintenance and repair. NFU head of policy Andrew Clark says: "Many in the farming community are determined to see the buildings conserved, even though many no longer have an active farm use."

Clark adds: "Access to skilled labour to help maintain and repair these farm buildings is also scarce. That is why we are looking towards English Heritage and DEFRA to help farmers maintain these traditional buildings and to local authority planners to encourage their sensitive reuse."

There is some good news. DEFRA spent £90 million in 2000-04 helping to restore around 3,000 farm buildings, 7,700km of historic boundaries and more than 100ha of water features. Its environmental stewardship scheme has been fine-tuned to protect built as well as natural environmental assets.

But English Heritage accepts that more must be done to support private owners. "We will continue to lobby for a flat rate of VAT on repairs and alterations and for further grant schemes," promises chief executive Simon Thurley.

Heritage Counts 2005 is available from English Heritage (tel) 0870 333 1181.

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