Last edited 19 May 2024

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Rural buildings at risk

Under wraps in East Sussex.png
Under wraps in East Sussex.



The problem of rural buildings at risk demands a focus on prevention; encouraging sensitive re-use; and preventing the small minority of malign owners from profiting.

Perhaps half a million traditional farm buildings (half the total) have been lost since 1919, around 15 buildings each day. Most of those that remain are important as heritage, and to rural landscapes. But agricultural and legislative change mean that very few have a genuine economic use: they cannot generate (directly or indirectly) enough income to cover their maintenance costs. The same is true of the surprisingly large legacy of rural industrial buildings: if we mine slate or copper, it is not with 19th-century infrastructure.

Although some heritage owners do cross-subsidise crumbling buildings from other income, very few can afford their long-term costs – perhaps £50,000 or more than £150,000 to put them into repair, and another £3,000 or £10,000 a year to maintain them thereafter. For some buildings, decades of persuasion by the Heritage Alliance, Historic England, the CLA and others has secured some agri-environment funding, but relentless pressures on taxpayer funding – the NHS and pensions, for example – means that it can support only a small proportion.

It is primarily up to us in the heritage sector, not governments, to save buildings at risk. The usual solution is a new use which generates funding to cover their costs. Most can, with appropriate design, be re-used very successfully. The Landmark Trust, for example, rescues buildings by converting them to holiday use, which crucially funds their maintenance thereafter, and so persuades funders to cover the upfront costs. Other building preservation trusts and (on a greater scale, but usually unpublicised) private and commercial owners re-use buildings too.

There are, however, major hurdles. One is that where the end value of the building is less than the costs of repair and conversion (a conservation deficit) there is a problem. There is no magic solution, though it is surprising how, if economics is the only issue, funding may be found from somewhere. Usually, however, economics is not the only issue: there are several other, more soluble, problems. If we in the heritage sector overcame these, we could substantially reduce the problem of buildings at risk.

Nationally, planning policy is generally helpful. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) encourages the re-use of rural buildings, especially heritage (current paragraph 80); prior approval schemes (see below) encourage re-use; and Historic England’s The Adaptive Reuse of Traditional Farm Buildings (HEAN9, 2017) encourages ‘new… uses that enhance their historic… significance’.

These policies, however, have made little impact on the first problem: that at the heart of most rural local plans are formidable policy presumptions that development outside major settlements – as crumbling rural heritage usually is – is ‘unsustainable’ and thus unacceptable. Given the primacy of the local plan in planning (and appeal) decisions, these policies make it extremely difficult to obtain, or indeed for the local planning authority to grant, consent to re-use rural heritage at risk, however compelling the heritage case, even with pro-heritage policies in the margins of the plan. This means that sympathetic applications are refused (‘the proposal is unsustainable and inconsistent with policies H1 [etc] in the local plan…’). Worse, the high application costs and low probability of success mean that most people with redundant crumbling heritage, understandably, do not try. This is lethal for rural heritage.

Class Q prior approval

This is a challenging problem that the heritage sector cannot easily address by itself. The obvious solution is the Class Q prior approval scheme for residential conversion of agricultural buildings (and Classes R and S for other uses). Class Q is highly restrictive, and it leaves the decision with the local planning authority. Planning authorities can easily reject Class Q applications, on a series of grounds, and an extraordinarily high 57 per cent of applications are, wisely or not, rejected. Class Q does, however, ask the local planning authority to consider wider issues.

Some councils do consider the benefits of conversion, and consents do follow, at least in a minority of cases, though so far there have been relatively few applications for heritage buildings, probably because lower financial returns from heritage re-use do not appear to outweigh the high costs of applications and the high risk of refusal. The heritage sector has been wary of Class Q/R/S, but realistically reviewing these is probably the best or only way of making it less difficult to get consents for heritage buildings outside major settlement boundaries. If we put effort into getting its details right, we could reuse hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buildings which otherwise will probably be lost.

Viable uses

The second soluble problem is that we often wait until after holes appear in the roof. Heritage being very expensive to repair can easily become at risk; any building without a viable use, or unattractive to users, even if initially in full repair, is at potential risk, so we should try to prevent that wherever possible. With any rural building, we should (after, as always, analysing heritage significance) proactively ask a series of questions. Is this building in a genuinely viable use? If it is, what sympathetic changes are needed (such as extra bathrooms in a house) to make it attractive to potential users? If it is not, can we get it into a viable use? What can we do to help the owner? Does this proposal need tweaking to make it better? What would be the impact on this building’s future if we rejected this application: can we be sure that, in practice, a better alternative would actually happen?

We should articulate these key questions in new published guidance. Historic England’s current advice on heritage at risk, that ‘working with the owner is the route to solving heritage at risk’ (Managing Significance in Decision-Taking in the Historic Environment, GPA2, 2015) is a good start. But it needs more detail, as above, incorporating also the advice on holistic decision- taking in the IHBC’s helpful Conservation Professional Practice Principles (2017).

Stopping the rot

The third soluble problem is an old-fashioned approach to buildings at risk: that the problem is not economics, just disrepair; that disrepair must by definition always be the fault of the owner, who has ‘neglected’ the building; that its future usability and viability are not relevant; and that if it were put into repair at the cost of the owner, but without a viable use, the problem would somehow have been ‘solved’; and so the solution is therefore immediately to use the enforcement powers set out in Historic England’s 120-page Stopping the Rot (2023) to enforce repair.

This approach has been remarkably ineffective, mainly because in most cases it is a misdiagnosis, and unreasonable. Most owners hate seeing heritage decay; the reason it does is that they have no choice. Historic England research a decade ago showed that the average conservation deficit on a building on its building-at-risk register was £500,000. In clearer language, if you repaired it, you would lose £500,000. Most people can readily identify with not having £500,000 to lose, so aggressively serving notices on owners who do not is not going to happen, because it will not command public (or local authority elected member) support.

The aggressive-notice approach to benign owners is thus ineffective, because it does not happen, but it would be lethal if it did. Rescuing buildings at risk takes time. Nobody would take on a building at risk today if the local planning authority would serve notices tomorrow, requiring a long list of expensive works, of its choosing, to be commenced within 28 days.

Malign owners

Importantly, however, a small minority of owners of buildings at risk are not benign victims of economics: there is a viable conservation solution, but the owner, often a speculator, is rejecting it. We must deal very proactively with these cases, or speculators will outbid repairing purchasers. Unfortunately we are often bad at this, perhaps partly because the misdiagnosis above (that all owners are malign) diverts us from tackling those who really are malign, but mainly because we assume that hard-pressed local conservation or enforcement officers are well-equipped to handle all owners: some property speculators may variously be unpleasant, obtuse, effectively advised or foreign-based.

An effective solution would be a small national team (perhaps of semi-retired people, to maximise experience and reduce costs) with extensive viability and litigation experience, which would proactively identify a sample of egregious and winnable cases, with local planning authority help. The team would then assertively pursue these cases to successful outcomes and publicise them widely to discourage others.

The scale of this problem can prompt despair, but plenty of people want to help, including private and commercial owners. Many people look at Historic England’s and SAVE’s lists of buildings at risk, but fewer now act on them. If we in the heritage sector focus much more on prevention; if we help the big majority of benign owners by proactively encouraging sensitive re-use proposals; and if we prevent the small minority of malign owners from profiting from being malign; we could probably at least double our success rate.

This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 178, published in December 2023. It was written by Jonathan Thompson, co-chair of the Heritage Alliance’s Rural Heritage Advocacy Group, and senior heritage adviser at the CLA (Country Land and Business Association). He was previously chief executive of the Architectural Heritage Fund, and before that head of operations at the Landmark Trust. This article may not necessarily reflect the views of these organisations.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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