Terence Blacker: I live in a 'horror conversion' - and here's why

Planning departments are afraid of letting architects express the modern aesthetic
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The Independent Online

In most of rural Britain, there are certain phrases that will make respectable country folk squawk in alarm and rise like a covey of startled partridges. "Travellers' site" is one; "development land", "animal rights" and "John Prescott" are others. To these, thanks to the efforts of the Countryside Agency, we can now add "horror conversions".

The agency is worried about the state of old agricultural buildings. With the decline of farming, they say (and the move of modern agribusiness towards steel grain-stores and silos, they might have added), many old timber-framed barns and outbuildings are falling into disrepair. The farmers themselves are too impoverished to pay for upkeep, so quite often they apply for change-of-use planning permission. The result, more often than not, it is claimed, are those horror conversions: shed-houses or barn-houses designed in a way that is "fundamentally unsympathetic" and is leading towards "the suburbanisation of the countryside".

At first glance, the fate of the nation's barns and cowsheds would seem to rank rather low on a crowded anxiety agenda but, behind the campaign, lies the kind of attitude towards the countryside which determines many of the big decisions around planning and housing. Nobody wants suburbanisation, of course - the design panacea of a century ago has morphed into one of the evils of our time - but much of this talk of sympathy for the landscape turns out to be a tweedy, old-fashioned kind of class snobbery.

Rural society, according to this view, is still run along class lines and housing should reflect those divisions. At the top there are the toffs, who have either bought an old house or have had built a new one which is designed to look old. Then, filling up fields on the outskirts of towns and villages, the humbler locals live in box-like units of "affordable housing". Between these two polarities, there are, most importantly of all, the farmers, the countryside's acceptable middle class.

In reality, most farmers have not the slightest interest in good taste or aesthetically pleasing architecture but, having presented themselves as custodians of the landscape, they are now allowed to put up whatever monstrosity they choose, wherever they choose, without too much bother from the local planners.

Finally, in the middle stratum, there are those, many of them former townies, who have moved in, initiating horror conversions, ruining lovely old farm building by making them into houses, and bringing their suburban values with them.

I should declare an interest. I happen to live in what the Countryside Agency might well call a horror conversion, and indeed oversaw this affront to good taste myself. The building in which I live was erected as an agricultural shed in 1990 on the site of a derelict barn. It was a solidly-built structure in which geese would be reared, but it need not have been - no inspections were made. Seven years later, by a freak of planning, the local council granted its then owner permission for change of use into a dwelling. He then put it on to the market.

Dealing with local planners, I discovered a simple truth. Although the building was not old, nor timber-framed, nor really a barn, it gave the illusion of being all those things and so, discussing windows, the roof or the chimney, we all had to pretend it was something it was not. The place, I was repeatedly told, must look when it was completed like a converted agricultural building. Anything which resembled a house would have breached the planning regulations.

Here is the source of the Countryside Agency's suburbanisation. It is not over-excited architects working for tasteless and vulgar urbanites who are causing the problems so much as a backward-looking, unimaginative culture that is in thrall to a particular view of the countryside. Hooked pathetically on heritage, the planners insist on houses that are as identical to one another as possible. Each must be a neat, sanitised, environmentally sound imitation of a cowshed, barn or stable.

With a profound lack of confidence in contemporary taste, planning departments are afraid of letting architects express the modern aesthetic, to harness the dynamism of the moment to bring something new to the countryside. They are reluctant even to admit that what was once a barn is now a house. It must look "agricultural", "sympathetic".

In this way, councils and worthy organisations like the Countryside Agency express a stratified view of rural society that is as crumbling and ancient as any cowshed. Just as the established folk of the country live in old houses and the low-paid live in modern boxes, so the middle-class must fit into old-new conversions that are neither one thing nor the other.

It is time to have more confidence in ourselves. The faux-rural aesthetic that requires houses to look like old farm buildings is both fraudulent and timorous. It belongs to the same approach to design which encourages, in the true suburbia, new houses that are now known as "barn-style residences". Fake conversions, they are, in effect, imitations of imitations.

As it turned out, my horror conversion proved to be a fine, grown-up house of which I am rather proud, but that was not as a result of the sympathetic, appropriate rules of the local council, but in spite of them. The horrors are not being perpetrated by people like me but by a drearily unadventurous planning system.