Protecting Kent’s rural heritage

Godinton House

Godinton House - Credit: Archant

Why Kent’s many fine rural heritage assets all need an investment of commitment, passion and, crucially, funds to ensure their long-term survival

The Kent countryside is full of remarkable rural heritage assets, from historic houses, barns, mills and hill forts to parks and gardens.

Most are owned privately, some by the state, but they all play an important part in shaping Kent’s unique landscape.

However, they are under continuous attack from adversaries including rain, wind, rot, rust, vandalism, burrowing animals, plant growth, flooding and coastal erosion. A heritage structure or site needs to be looked after or it decays and can quickly fall into dilapidation. This maintenance is demanding, requiring specialist expertise and a lot of money.

The investment of commitment, passion and funds into a heritage structure or site is only going to happen when people want to use, work in or visit it. At Godinton House, pictured above, where I am estate manager, we are fortunate that the house and gardens have been maintained and improved over six centuries without sweeping away the years that have gone before.

The free use of old buildings can generate income which enables historic fabric, physical and social, to be maintained. I read of an estate where the current owner has set up several rural businesses which now employ 90 people – the same number that were employed by his grandfather when the estate was traditionally run.

This sympathetic change needs to be allowed and encouraged by planning authorities, and therein lies the problem: the current heritage protection system demands a great deal of local authority resource, which is simply not there.

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Heritage protection is the worst-resourced part of the entire planning system. Desirable proposals often run into the ground, and the resources are not there to stop heritage from being damaged.

The CLA has called for reform for some time, successfully in terms of national heritage planning policy, which has been greatly improved in the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government also recently confirmed plans to restructure English Heritage, creating a new public body, Historic England. The CLA will work to persuade Historic England to help address current problems and safeguard heritage assets for the future.

I have a passion for saving our traditional farm buildings. I travel a lot around Kent and am always struck by the striking aisled barns and oast houses, the traditional granaries, stables and brew houses.

However, as agriculture and our rural communities have modernised, many of these structures have become redundant and fallen into decay; thousands have already been lost. These buildings need new life breathed into them through sympathetic conversion to new use.

There are some great examples in Kent, with traditional farm buildings sensitively converted for use as farm shops, education centres, offices and for residential use.

Unfortunately, most planning authorities prohibit the conversion of buildings outside villages and towns, which is where most of them are, ignoring the benefits that conversion can bring for our landscape, heritage protection, economy and people.

The law was changed in 2014 to encourage more conversion, but only a minority of applications for conversion of farm buildings to homes are permitted by local authorities. It is of course right that the planning process ensures good design that fits with the landscape in any conversion of traditional farm buildings.

It is also every landowner’s responsibility to produce conversions of really good quality using local materials and being sensitive to the landscape and the setting.

But even the best-designed applications are being turned down, and this wholesale prohibition of change is very damaging. Each treasured heritage structure and site in Kent needs to be maintained, managed and protected if it is to survive.

We must ensure that the next generation has the opportunity to enjoy our county’s heritage as much as we do. n

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