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Thatched cottages under threat by zealous planners

publication date: Aug 23, 2008
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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con) opened a Parliamentary debate on Thatched Roofs (Planning Policy): 

I welcome this opportunity to raise the problems faced by many owners of thatched cottages and houses when the time comes to renew their roofs and they apply for planning consent. There are a number of players in the game: the homeowners themselves, the thatchers who do the work and the farmers who grow the straw. 

The planners and English Heritage are the referees, and the man who makes the rules is the Planning Minister, whom I welcome to the debate.

There are also many spectators: the visitors to and fellow residents of the many traditional villages in this country with thatched cottages, of which there are many in my constituency. They form part of our cultural heritage—a heritage threatened by the very rules designed to safeguard it. 

Thatched roofs need to be replaced every 15 or 20 years. Until the last part of the 20th century, the choice of style and material for replacement was left to the owner and thatcher. Replacement was evolutionary, reflecting the availability of materials and the thatcher’s craft and style. In the past 20 years, intervention and control have begun to halt that evolutionary process. The balance must now be shifted away from conservationists, who have tried to freeze-frame the process, and back to owners and thatchers. 

English Heritage now insists on a policy of like for like in materials and thatching styles for listed building consent. A cottage thatched with traditional long straw must be re-thatched with traditional long straw. However, that straw is becoming scarce due to changing farming practices. The problem is now critical as a result of the poor harvest last year. Re-thatching with any straw—whether long straw or combed wheat reed, as in Hampshire—is impossible, because there is none. 

Brien Walker: The expert’s view 

With over 60,000 historic buildings in the country which are thatched and nearly half of these listed as being of historic or architectural importance, it is hardly surprising that respected Sir George Young should attempt to highlight the implications for the future of the thatching industry following the catastrophic 2007 harvest (House of Commons debate on 7 May 2008) and plaudits to him for so doing. The fact is that long straw thatch supplies are at an all time low and the cost has risen sharply. 

Therefore, at a time when conservation still requires we replace on a ‘like for like’ basis, the argument is whether exceptions should be made and other materials utilised, (say) reed in what might be regionally a traditional long straw area. Certainly predictions for the locally grown reed harvest (according to the British Reed and Sedge Cutters Association) are good, though the vast majority of our supply comes from Europe. 

Even the use of alternative materials such as hemp, linseed or miscanthus (a forage grass used for centuries for thatching in Japan) has been promoted. Robert West (Grower and past Chairman of the NSMT - National Society of Master Thatchers), states that there are now only 5 major long straw growers in the UK and virtually none have any stock. In short it is becoming virtually impossible to obtain and the price has subsequently rocketed; I am informed nearly trebling from £600 to £1500 per tonne. Perhaps chartered surveyors engaged in building surveys of thatched buildings would subsequently be wise to point the implications of unavailability and cost to their clients. 

English Heritage and tablets of stone 

It is perceived that English Heritage guidance notes about thatching have effectively been adopted as tablets of stone. As such, the NSMT commenting on the effects of the dire 2007 harvest, have urged Conservation Officers not to be over zealous in seeking to protect traditional application of materials, but to adopt flexibility due to the seriousness of the situation, particularly where there is little impact on the built environ. Admittedly this is somewhat at odds with the first National Conference, ‘Thatching the future of an English Tradition’ with its key note address by HRH the Prince of Wales. Then it was stressed that if one thatching material was to be changed for another, it was not just the overall superficial appearance of the material that was important, but also the craftsmanship and method of construction. Different materials invariably necessitate different detailing, being particularly important around dormers, eaves, ridges and chimneys, which then can have a profound and dramatic impact on the overall visual appearance. 

However, I suppose it is reasonable to question what is traditional anyhow. Certainly the smooth combed soft appearance of long straw, is a far flung cry from the rough edged ‘heaped’ thatched roof on an artisans’ hovel during medieval and mddle age centuries. However, it seems to me that Sir George and Mr Letwin MP, were both attempting to make a point more about regulation, than they were about thatching. Let’s face it, if they truly can not see a difference between the appearance of long straw and reed, then there is not much point in having a discussion anyhow! 

However, is there more to this than meets the eye? The preferred seeds for thatch over recent decades were predominately common winter wheat varieties such as Aquila, Little Joss, Victor, Square head master, N59, Maris Widgeon or Huntsmen. Unfortunately due to the strictures laid down by European legislation (policed by DEFRA), none of these seed varieties, to produce top quality thatching straw, are now on the National List of Permitted Varieties. 

You may well ask why should the European Community prohibit use of our traditional materials, but perhaps this ‘contentious’ subject is a bridge too far for our politicians to address. The fact remains that it is now illegal to sell or pass on these varieties and this is all irrespective of last year’s poor harvest. Farm saved seed is known to deteriorate with time and produces poor germination. Anyhow, why would farmers want to bother growing it in the first place, when alternatives, such as crops for bio fuels, are far more profitable? Whilst fringing slightly on sustainability issues, it is perhaps worth remembering that thatch insulation value is about 50% higher than that of reed. 

The lack of traditional seeds has also led to the steep rise in use of what is called Triticale, a cross between wheat and rye, even though the original is rapidly being outclassed by other varieties. It first appeared in about 1990 and is now used on about 50% of the UK’s long straw properties. It is a hardy popular plant, as it can be grown continuously, with a flexible tall, yet relatively soft stem. Some thatchers however still argue that it is still inferior to traditional varieties and unsuitable to main coat application. 

The fact remains, that as a result of dire shortages, in hand with steeply rising prices, is that Sir George, (together with informed authorities such as the NSMT), are completely correct to highlight the critical situation facing this most traditional craft. Long straw thatch is something which so epitomises our country and, to a large extent, how the rest of the world pictures our countryside. 

It has been mooted that within the next decade, long straw thatching could cease altogether as there will be no material supply. Will this mean that the value of cottages covered with long straw will plummet and become the estate agent’s ‘problem properties’, or will common sense prevail? Will the politicians of the European Parliament permit us to use our tested and proven traditional hardy seed varieties again or will other materials have to become accepted? 

Just as uncertain and controversial is what alternative can be used; reed, miscanthus, linseed, hemp? Prior to the cottage renovation boom of the 70s, when we appeared to care less for our rustic housing stock and Conservation Officers (first appointed in 1974) were rarely taken seriously, it was common to find literally hundreds of properties with the thatch covered by sheets of rusting corrugated iron. 

Now that’s a thought… 

Brien Walker FRICS FNAEA Snow Walker Associates of Saffron Walden Essex