Save our barns for the future

Every farm has one – or probably several – of them: old barns, once the hub of the farming operation but now sidelined because they’re too small or the roofs are too low.

They’ve probably got a tile or two missing and the rain is finding its way into the timbers.

You keep meaning to get someone in to do a bit of maintenance, but with things as they are in farming it’s hard to justify the expense.

Sounds familiar?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

A high proportion of Britain’s traditional (ie pre-1940) farm buildings stand irrelevant and forgotten, old soldiers that haven’t seen active service for many a decade.

Others have been converted to houses or tea-rooms, often tastefully though sometimes not.

Does anyone care?

Well, yes, English Heritage has been quietly trying to find out exactly how endangered a species our old farm buildings have become.

This week it released the results of its researches — called Heritage Counts 2005 — and the news is not good.

Stephen Trow, English Heritage’s head of rural and environmental policy, admits that no one knows exactly how many traditional farm buildings there are in Britain, so it’s hard to work out how much of a decline there has been.

Half a million is the best guess of numbers of current pre-1940 buildings, of which more than 30,000 are nationally-important listed buildings, mostly grade 2.

Farmers have always had redundant or semi-redundant barns.

The problem now is that — after almost a decade of rock bottom prices — upkeep is suffering.

And a lot of the barns are reaching the stage where it’s simply too expensive to repair them.

English Heritage’s survey showed that more than 7% of unconverted listed farm buildings were in the severest state of disrepair (ie falling down) and many more were at risk (ie beginning to fall down)

Does it matter if they all disappear?

Not in practical day-to-day farming terms, maybe.

But barns and sheds — whether they’re 1920s Dutch barns or 1880s brick-and-tile — give 75% of Britain’s land area its characteristic look.

They are also a sort of time tunnel back into our agricultural past, telling historians how we farmed from Medieval times onwards.

How’s the problem come about?

Neglect is the chief culprit, says Mr Trow.

It starts small; a couple of slates blow off in a storm, a window blows out or a valley gutter starts to leak.

Water trickles unseen down into the structure every time it rains and rot takes hold.

A year or two on and a 100 repair job has become a 10,000 one.

The other culprit is a surprising one — barn conversions, both to residential and commercial use.

Once a trickle, the pace of conversions is now a fast-moving river.

Nearly 60% of farmers with listed buildings have put in a planning application in the last 25 years and nearly 80% of those are reckoned to have been successful.

Many of these are done sympathetically, says Mr Trow, but some are too fussy, too elaborate or too suburban-looking.

In fact a survey this year from 22 parishes in Hertfordshire showed that 36% of all traditional timber-framed buildings have been taken out of agricultural use because they’ve fallen down, been demolished or been converted.

If this rate of loss continues, by 2020 the county’s entire stock of timber-framed buildings will have been converted, demolished or collapsed.

Why’s this happening?

“Two main factors are contributing to the decline in our stock of traditional farm buildings,” says Mr Trow.

“One is that so many are functionally redundant. The other is that when farm incomes are low upkeep suffers.”

It’s worse than that, too.

As more and more farmers join forces to share machinery or get in contractors, day-to-day farming operations are being grouped in the farms with good modern barns while whole farmsteads find themselves without a purpose.

Even where they have the money, farmers say they struggle to find local craftsmen to do the work.

In fact two-thirds of farmers said there were no specialist builders and thatchers within 10 miles of their farm.

Is there really no agricultural future for these barns?

“We accept that many of these barns are never going to play a central role in the modern farm business — they’re too small to keep a tractor in and many don’t meet the health and hygiene standards for livestock buildings.”

“Wherever possible we’d like to see them remain as a farm building of some sort. Low-key use is fine — all farms need to have places to store equipment in.”

Are barn conversions to commercial use the answer?

English Heritage is keen to point out that it wants to see barns being used, ideally for agricultural purposes but, if that isn’t possible, for commercial use.

It’s taken a realistic stance on this — a barn that houses a business, after all, is much less likely to be neglected than one that stands empty and earns nothing.

“We can see where farms are going.

We want to see policies that are grounded in reality,” says Mr Trow.

“We all have a vested interest in farm businesses being economically buoyant.”

Conversions to commercial also have the advantage of being less invasive than a residential conversion and often give the best chance to retain a good number of original features, says Mr Trow.

Are residential conversions also part of the answer?

They can be, agrees Mr Trow, but the problem is that turning a barn into a house invariably involves major surgery to the structure.

Some of it is unavoidable. New floors have to be added, new windows put in to bring in light and insulation added to keep to energy efficiency rules.

But he’s saddened by barn conversions which try to bring suburban aesthetics to the countryside, with acres of glass, PVC windows fitted flush to the outside wall, pseudo-Georgian front doors, lots of leylandii hedges and fancy bargeboards on gable ends.

Grants that are solely for repair and maintenance would help, surely?

There have been grants of this type in the past but they have been a bit specialist and not that well known about.

Farmers in ESAs, for instance, have been able to get a grant for 80% of costs and those in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme could get 50%.

What about the new Environmental Stewardship scheme though?

Repair grants are available under the HLS scheme.

There were also to have been maintenance grants in the ELS scheme but the EU axed them at the last moment and DEFRA is lobbying to reinstate them.

The idea of these is that they are relatively modest sums that pay for regular, routine maintenance of working pre-1940s buildings, thereby avoiding the need for huge future capital grants to salvage barns that have all but fallen down.