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80% of West Midlands’ Historic Farmsteads Still In Active Use, Says New Study


Historic farm buildings are contributing significantly to the 21st century economy and countryside, according to a new study of over 22,000 historic farmsteads in the West Midlands.

The West Midlands Farmsteads and Landscapes Project was conducted by English Heritage in collaboration with Advantage West Midlands and local authorities to promote new uses for historic farmsteads, while respecting the character of the landscape.

The study found that more than 80% of historic farmsteads in the West Midlands have retained some or all of their traditional working buildings. Over two-thirds of those in existence since 1900 have already been converted to non-agricultural use (the majority 61% for residential use), and a small but thriving 5% to sole industrial, commercial or retail use engaging in activities like workshops, self-catering holiday homes and office rental space.  A third remain in agricultural use with varying degrees of diversification.

The West Midlands study also points out that the economic benefits of residential use (which typically can result in the conversion of individual buildings) are often overlooked. One in twelve of the farmsteads in residential use in the region are now the registered office of a limited company containing significant and, until now, largely hidden start up and high-end business activity such as business services, construction, real estate, recreational and cultural services, medical and related services, retail and catering. Historic farmsteads are more often used for this type of home-based entrepreneurial business than other dwellings regardless of location.

The largest historic farmsteads are most likely to have remained in agricultural use. Increasingly, however, changes in farming practices have prompted demand for new working sheds, often on new sites. Traditional farm buildings on working farms are increasingly not deployed for farming but used instead for storage or to accommodate diversifying farm businesses, such as farm shops and holiday lets (3% of use).

English Heritage will use the results of this project to help decision-makers to unlock the potential of historic farmsteads, based on an understanding of variations in their local character, their significance, and their sensitivity to change.

Steve Trow, National Head of Rural and Environmental Advice at English Heritage, said: We now have clear evidence that historic farmsteads – farmhouses together with working buildings – make an important and highly distinctive contribution to the rural building stock and the uniqueness of our landscape. Their residential re-use, linked to home-based entrepreneurial business, could be a key contribution to renewed economic growth in the countryside.

We want to see more of these buildings being put to good economic use so they can continue to benefit the rural economy. To achieve this, the challenge is to promote re-use sympathetic to their inherited character and local distinctiveness which is at the heart of their appeal to homebuyers and businesses in the first place.

Mark Pearce, Corporate Director Economic Regeneration, Advantage West Midlands, said: This study gives evidence of another aspect of rural life which is important to the regions economy. Rural areas contribute 33 per cent to the region’s economy. Some 80 per cent of West Midlands land is rural, with 35 per cent of the regions population living in rural areas and 34 per cent working in them.

This information can now be used by government and other agencies to target scarce resources both in terms of conserving heritage and boosting rural economy.

English Heritage, with the help of Kent Design and Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), is also publishing a new farmstead conversion guidance to help owners and planners make the most of farm buildings, many which are more than 100 years old.

Both the West Midlands study and conversion guidance are available for download from

1. The West Midlands Farmsteads and Landscapes Project is the latest of a series of rural studies that English Heritage has undertaken in collaboration with universities and local authorities to better understand the character, pace of change and condition of historic farming assets.

The project, involving Herefordshire Council, Shropshire Council, Staffordshire County Council, Warwickshire County Council, Worcestershire County Council, Advantage West Midlands and English Heritage, has:

– mapped and described the locations and characteristics of over 22,000 historic farmsteads, how they have changed over time and how they relate to the landscape;

– described the present use of historic farmsteads and their role in the economy of the West Midlands

– developed a set of planning tools to inform spatial planning, land management and

2. The study finds that historic farmsteads are assets which make a significant and highly varied contribution to the rural building stock, landscape character and local distinctiveness of the West Midlands

  • Approximately 17,000 (82%) of historic farmsteads, as recorded from late 19th century maps, have retained some or all of their traditional working buildings and are in active use. The survival and densities of historic farmsteads are lowest in the south east of the region and some arable areas, and highest in upland or pastoral farming landscapes.
  • Nearly 88% of historic farmsteads are sited away from villages and large settlements, and developed within small hamlets or as isolated individual sites or clusters. They are an integral part of an historic pattern of dispersed (as opposed to village-based) settlement across most of the West Midlands.
  • Local and regional variations in the form and scale of historic farmsteads reflect centuries of landscape change. Along the Welsh borders and in the uplands of the north east there are large numbers of surviving, small-scale farmsteads in agricultural use associated with land of high amenity and landscape value.

3. The study shows that historic farmsteads are assets which, through agricultural and other new uses, make an important contribution to the rural economy and communities away from market towns and other rural centres.  Current uses are:

61%     Residential use: This includes sole residential use, those that contain home-based businesses that do not need planning consent, and those that contain economic activities that require planning consent.  Small-scale farmsteads are the most likely to have passed into residential use, but otherwise this type of use is evenly distributed across all types and scales of historic farmsteads.

5%       Industrial, commercial or retail use: This is mostly strongly associated with the largest farmstead types

31%     Agricultural use: This use is most strongly associated with the largest farmstead types. There are also high numbers of medium to small-scale farmsteads in agricultural use across the uplands of the Welsh Borders and in north-east Staffordshire (including the Peak District).

3%       Agricultural use with industrial, commercial or retail diversification: This is concentrated towards the west of the region, particularly in Herefordshire where large-scale farmsteads developed.

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