There are an estimated 4,500 barns (in the original Yorkshire Dales National Park area), varying from small field barns to more substantial structures. Many of them are now unsuited to modern farming methods and are falling into disrepair. Nancy Stedman, trustee of The Friends of the Dales charity takes a closer look.

THERE are many pressures facing the Yorkshire Dales, from loss of services, an ageing population and car-borne tourism to a disastrous decline in wildlife. One particular issue is how to conserve the many field barns which are such key features of the internationally recognised and unique historic landscape, created by livestock farmers and lead miners over the centuries.

They contribute to our understanding of the history of the landscape, and many contain valuable historic features revealing how they were built and used. Although most are not listed, their value as historic assets is considerable.

Efforts have been made in the past to conserve them; for instance, the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme (1998-2004) brought in over £3.5 m. to the restoration of barns. But now there is only uncertainty as to what contribution future agri-environment schemes might make.

And meanwhile the pressures continue, as schools, shops and services continue to close. It’s a low wage economy, reliant upon farming and tourism, whilst external demand drives up house prices, making it often impossible for local workers to find houses they can afford. There are some sites allocated for housing, but these are rarely taken up by housing associations or developers, as they are often small and in remote locations, offering only marginal viability. Barn conversions are often touted as a solution, but they tend to be complex, slow and unpredictable in their timescales, and relatively expensive.

In 2013 central government proposed the removal of planning control over barn conversions. This would have had an enormously damaging effect on national parks, the Yorkshire Dales in particular. Friends of the Dales joined others in campaigning against this, the outcome being that the government expected all national park authorities to relax planning constraints on barn conversions in some way. In the Dales, this coincided with the review of the Local Plan which came into effect in 2016.

Three linked policies were developed: the first addresses the conversion of traditional farm buildings that are considered to be heritage assets. The second considers those locations considered appropriate for such conversions, namely within villages, hamlets or groups of buildings, but also within 50 metres of a metalled road. Dwellings are limited to ‘local occupancy’ or holiday lets. The third policy ensures that proposals will not be permitted when they undermine the architectural and historic character of the building and its landscape setting.

So the aim of these new policies is to secure the long term future of traditional buildings, conserving their intrinsic historic interest and value; it is a conservation policy.

Over the past five years we have been monitoring the planning applications, and commenting or objecting where we consider that the application fails to meet all or some of the three linked policies. Perhaps contrary to popular conceptions that development is stifled, recent figures (taken from the Authority’s annual monitoring report 2020) show that there have been 153 successful permissions, with only 11 refused. The majority are located within villages or settlements, or are within farmsteads or other building groups. But 25% are classified as ‘roadside’ or similar - ie. they are field barns within open countryside.

With only 25 conversions actually completed (and another 37 under way) it is not possible yet to assess the efficacy of the policy, or any wider implications, including ‘unintended consequences’. But the number and location of the conversions raise many questions:

Are the buildings conserved, or is there an adverse impact on their historic character?

With the large number of permissions, will there be an unacceptable impact on landscape character?

Will they rejuvenate small communities, or simply provide more holiday lets?

Will it lead to more local trade or create more traffic, more emissions, and yet more demand on already stretched services?

Is this a way to provide much-needed homes that local people can afford? or is it simply creating up-market bijou residencies in prime locations?

The Local Plan for the Yorkshire Dales National Park is currently being reviewed, the aim being to publish the next Plan in 2023. This is therefore a crucial time to assess the impacts of the change in policy and to engage in the consultation process.

This research has been supported by PLACE: People, Landscape and Cultural Environment of Yorkshire (