Securing planning permission for new agricultural tied dwellings has eased succession planning for three generations of farmers. Farmers Guardian reports.
James Gray is the fourth generation of his family to farm Wonston Manor Farm, a 242-hectare (600-acre) holding, on the outskirts of Winchester.
When his great-uncle John Henry took on the tenancy from the Church Commissioners in 1899, Queen Victoria was still on the throne, the cart and horse had not yet been replaced by tractor and the farm permanently employed 12 to 15 men, more at lambing time.
James Henry, the son of John Henry, then took over but did not have any sons to succeed him. So, his cousin George, James’ father, moved to Wonston Manor Farm in the mid-1950s when it was a mixed farm rearing beef with a lambing flock, pigs, chickens and cereal crops.
When James, who was born on the farm, came into the tenancy in 1996, he decided to concentrate on beef, sheep and cereals, including seed growing. Today – 24 years later – his son Tom is lined up to take over the farm.
While the Grays have been tenant farmers at Wonston Manor Farm for more than a century, the land has belonged to the Church ’in some form or other’ for 1,400 years, said James, a former chairman of the Tenants Farmers Association.
He said: “It is a traditional, Hampshire chalk farm with a bit of river frontage and a lot of downland – about one square mile in total. The river frontage is for grazing cattle and the downland for sheep. The better land is near the river [Dever] and the poorer soil on the downs.”
In the large kitchen of the Georgian farmhouse sits James, 61, and his wife, Sue, who have four adult children.
The kitchen has changed little over the years. There is still a Regency roasting jack, but without pulleys and chains needed to turn the spit.
In the early 20th century, the farm tenancy was renewed annually. Security of tenure gradually improved until the Agricultural Holdings Act (AHA) (1948, 1976) gave family succession rights and the introduction of a fair rent formula.
James said: “My father was the first generation after the Agricultural Holdings Act which meant I could succeed him and my son could succeed me, even though there had been two generations before.”
The AHA tenancy will end with Tom, a trained vet, who works full-time on the farm.
Building a second house was part of the generational succession planning. Retirement housing could not be met by housing on the farm, nor could they build on the rented land.
The couple did not own a house elsewhere, which made finding a home in the locality difficult.
“Historically, before I was born, this farm had the farmhouse and nine cottages. Now there is the farmhouse and three cottages which left me short of labour,” said James who previously worked as a farm manager at nearby Chilbolton Down Farm.
James and Sue were able to self-build a second house as they owned a 5ha (12-acre) field, thanks to a movie mogul with a passion for shooting.
In 1970, Arthur Rank, who owned adjoining Sutton Manor Estate, wanted to shoot partridge on the Grays’ farm; as Church tenants they had the shooting rights.
George Gray came to a gentleman’s agreement with Lord Rank that he could shoot partridge on the farm during his lifetime in exchange for the use of two small fields.
Lord Rank, a devout Methodist, died before he could shoot a single partridge but his farm agent, Dick Kitson, said he would have wanted the agreement honoured and allowed continued use of the two fields.
When George retired, the land could not be assigned with the rest of the farm, but the estate was willing to sell.
“I did not buy the 12-acre field to build a house on but to farm,” said James.
The field had a ‘pretty irksome’ restrictive covenant forbidding horses or houses which James eventually got lifted by giving the smaller field back to Sutton Manor. This left him with the 5ha (12-acre) field.
James said: “As soon as the restrictive covenant was lifted, I dashed to the local planning authority office to see about building a house in the field and their response was ‘not on your life’.”
A farming cousin Joanna Gray and her husband, Mark Cheyney, who had recently built a new farmhouse, recommended the services of their architect, Scot Masker, a director of Pro Vision, who has experience dealing with development proposals in sensitive, rural locations.
A business case was developed with the help of Alastair Field, of Reading Agricultural Consultants, showing the new tied dwelling was essential for animal husbandry, security and smooth running of the farm.
George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, wrote a helpful letter of support.
James said: “Permission was granted without it even going to the planning committee. It sailed through. My son Tom was going to take on the tenancy and that meant we could move out of the farmhouse and have somewhere to move into.”
Sue added: “It felt like a huge relief at the time.”
The fabric of the new house is brick and flint, with clay tiles to fit in with the landscape.
Sustainability was top of James’ wishlist, while Sue wanted four bedrooms for family visits. A biomass boiler, ground-source heat pump and independent water supply meant the building could operate sustainably and largely off-grid.
At present, Tom and his wife, Clare, and their three young children, are living in the new house.
When James retires at 66, the couples will swap homes. Under the tenancy agreement, the farming tenant must live in the main house.
Having built a house using many locally-sourced materials, including bricks and tiles, James and Sue then added a retirement bungalow, currently housing a former labourer who had worked on the farm for 50 years.
Scot designed and fought for planning permission for the second tied dwelling in the same field. The two dwellings have added significant value and increased the family’s housing options.
Now empty-nesters, the seven-bedroom main farmhouse is too big for Sue and James who are not allowed to run a bed and breakfast under their tenancy conditions.
“We rattle around. It is more suited to a bigger, younger family,” said James.
In a few years, through careful planning and expert help, the retiring couple can hand-over occupancy of the main farmhouse to the fifth generation and move into their beautiful new home a few hundred yards down the lane.