Aerial view of farm buildings.
Obriss Farm, Kent. The Weald is peppered with many isolated, small farms dating from the Medieval period, which are concentrated in areas of ancient fields. © Historic England NMR 27205/005
Obriss Farm, Kent. The Weald is peppered with many isolated, small farms dating from the Medieval period, which are concentrated in areas of ancient fields. © Historic England NMR 27205/005

New Life for England's Old Farm Buildings

  • Historic England publishes new advice to help owners convert redundant traditional farm buildings
  • Traditional farm buildings contribute to the local character and distinctiveness of England's countryside, but are often under threat of redundancy and loss
  • Last year the Government changed planning laws to extend permitted development rights so farm buildings can be converted to homes

A new guide for owners of farm buildings has been published today by Historic England, the public body that looks after and champions England's historic environment that will officially come into being on 1 April. 

It takes owners through the process for successfully changing buildings while retaining and enhancing historic character and significance. Getting the design right, including the siting of new buildings and other changes is fundamental to this process.

Most surviving traditional farm buildings date to the 19th century, but may be much older and they play a vital part in defining England's distinctive and diverse landscapes.

As agricultural practices and the rural economy change, many have become unsuitable for modern farming and without a use they rapidly fall into disrepair and are lost. Historic England's research has shown that only a third in some areas remains in agricultural use.

Successful pilots of the new guidance

West Midlands

Over 80% of traditional farmsteads in the West Midlands, for example, have survived to some degree. The area is characterised by cattle houses built as early as the 16th century, distinctive cider mills and some barns built before 1550 on the large estates of gentry or prosperous farmers.

Several farm buildings on the Bromesberrow Estate on the edge of the Malverns have already been successfully converted for commercial use and Historic England's new guide will inform how those elsewhere on the estate, including a pair of 19th Century buildings and a medieval barn, could be given new life whilst retaining their special character.

Gilbert Greenall, owner of Bromesberrow Estate, who piloted the advice, said: "Without the farmstead guide I would never have appreciated the fascinating history of the site and how this might help breathe new life into these ancient buildings.

"The 1884 ordnance survey map showed the buildings lost over the last 70 years, helping demonstrate to planners what could be achieved by new buildings on the site and how these might be arranged to protect the existing historic buildings which are in part from the 15th century, giving them a sustainable future."

South East

Countryside in the South East is known for its specialised farm buildings such as oasthouses built to serve the hop industry which boomed from the 18th century, but it has one of the highest concentrations of surviving early barns in England. Hazelden Farm in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which has more of these mostly timber framed barns than almost anywhere in Europe, has been developed and enhanced using this new guide because it led to a better understanding of the farm's most important elements and new, sustainable uses for its historic barns and oasthouses.

Greater flexibility in the planning system

Last year the Government changed planning laws to extend permitted development rights to the residential conversion of agricultural buildings.

Historic England wants people to continue to use and enjoy historic places and therefore encourages the conversion of redundant buildings in ways that retain local distinctiveness. Ultimately Historic England's aim is to stop traditional farm buildings disappearing from the landscape.

Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, said: "Farms are a vital part of our landscape and define the character and quality of an area, but in some places their nature is also changing.

"This government has put in place a planning system that reflects that and is flexible towards buildings changing their uses. That's why we are protecting farm buildings and the openness of the countryside but allowing buildings that are no longer suitable or needed to be converted to other uses without the need for planning permission.

"This will bring jobs and growth to the countryside as disused agricultural buildings are converted into shops, restaurants, small hotels, offices and much needed new homes and direct development away from green field sites.

"And that's also why we are supporting Historic England's farmstead assessment framework, which will be very helpful in encouraging the adaptation and improvement of these farms whilst conserving their historic value and significance."

Sir Laurie Magnus, Chairman of Historic England, said: "Given their importance to our heritage and to the local character of our rural landscapes, we are concerned about the rate at which traditional farm buildings are being lost.

"Although most will not meet the criteria for protection through listing, that does not mean that they are without value. Conversion will not be appropriate for all buildings, or in all circumstances, but it is our belief that - if approached in a sensitive way as set out in our advice - conversion can provide a suitable route for many.

"If done correctly, conversion can enable these buildings to be retained for future generations and, very importantly, it can help to breathe new life into rural communities."