Being presented with an opportunity to design and construct a modern farmstead from scratch is every farmer’s dream. Very few get to turn this into a reality, and even fewer are tenants who are lucky enough to be given a substantial sum from the landowner to invest in such extensive new facilities.

Fortunately for Alex Lock, whose family has farmed at Blakehurst Farm, Arundel, Sussex, since 1926, his landowner Angmering Park Estate did exactly that.

Under the astute guidance of Nigel Draffan, director of Savills and main estate manager for Angmering Park, the old farm has been sold to a developer and the income reinvested into the creation of a new farm centre, just up the road at Hill Barn Farm.

Many years ago, while looking after the Goodwood Estate, Sussex, Nigel had overseen the redevelopment of an old dairy unit. Proceeds from this project were reinvested back into the estate, providing one of the tenants with new, modern facilities. Having proved to be a success, Nigel was inspired to replicate this concept once again.

“The Dickensian set of buildings at Blakehurst were not crop assured, low-to-eves and quite frankly a rat haven,” said Nigel. “I invited the chief planner from the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) to inspect the site and he too thought it would be a great idea to convert the old buildings at Blakehurst Farm into residential units.”

A local building firm specialising in barn conversions, Clarendon Properties, was approached to take on the project. The building team put forward a workable solution for the redevelopment of the old flint and brick farm buildings into residential units. It was proposed that five existing buildings would be converted, and an additional two new-build properties would be constructed to form a modern courtyard development.

Despite the extensive research into the justification for the development, which showed that the scheme would only be viable if all seven residential units were constructed, the SDNPA would only give permission for the five existing buildings to be converted.

“It took four years to get planning and we had to make a significant sacrifice, giving up the two new builds,” said Nigel. “This meant that we were £250,000 down and in the end the scheme netted us exactly £1 million. We have put every penny of that into the new buildings and the creation of the new farm c

Modern farm centre

When Alex’s grandfather started out, he initially established a mixed dairy farm and Hill Barn Farm was once used to house the young stock. In 1992, when the Lock family came out of dairy and converted all operations to arable, the site at Hill Barn was rented out to create a diverse income stream. For five years the unit was home to a tenant who produced maggots for the fishing industry and the site still retains the nickname Maggot Farm.

With help from the planning team at Savills’ Petworth office, everything was finally granted for the residential development at Blakehurst Farm and the construction of the farmstead at Hill Barn Farm. Jon Carver from Rural Associates was appointed as the project manager and Pat and Will Phillips from P Phillips Contractors were secured as the main building contractors and supplied the steel framed buildings

“When we came to design the new farm centre, Alex and I sat down to figure out exactly what he needed and wanted from a new yard,” said Jon Carver. “Alex had clearly put a lot of time into research and had spoken to a lot of other farmers. We decided that one of the main issues at Blakehurst was the vehicle access and so one key feature of the new development was to allow enough space between the buildings. This now means that all large, modern agricultural machines and vehicles have easy access to the site.”

Having taken yard logistics and building height into consideration, Alex, who currently farms 750-acres of arable alone, will now be able to make use of local contract farmers with larger machinery, on a more regular basis.

The vast concrete yard is, according to Alex, also a real blessing when it comes to general farm management. It is not only easier to load grain and avoid spillages on a flat surface but sweeping dirt up with a bucket brush is now “so simple”.
The completed farm centre also includes a 1,000-tonne grain store, a secure, self-contained sprayer unit, a general-purpose building for storing hay, straw and fertiliser, an onsite workshop, a farm office and staff welfare unit, and an end unit which is being used by a sub tenant, who creates wooden sculptures with timber sourced from Angmering Park Estate’s woodland.

“I am extremely lucky to have such good landlords who have been willing to take all of the money from a development project and reinvest it back into a site which is mainly for the tenant’s day-to-day use and benefit,” said Alex. “Jon Carver has been a great project manager and the Phillips have done a first-class job too. The team managed to work around the farm and have timed everything to ensure that the grain store was available just in time for harvest, which is what we really needed.”

Sophisticated rainwater harvesting

Looking after the environment is certainly high on Alex’s agenda. As well as dedicating 150-acres to a research project on nitrate leaching with Southern Water, each of the new buildings has been designed with the ability to fit solar panels in the future and the farm has already invested in a sophisticated rainwater harvesting system.

“This is the first rain harvesting system of this sophistication that Phillips Contractors has fitted and it was done to an extremely high standard,” said Jon. “Building the farm centre from scratch has allowed the team to hide all the pipe work and it certainly does look lovely. It is something we can all be proud of.”

The system is currently fitted onto two of the buildings and there is the option to extend the system to the grain store if needed. At the moment, the two 30,000-litre tanks appear to be sufficiently serviced by the two buildings, with surplus water already being sent to a balancing pond. This overflow will double up as a wildlife habitat, which will be located in a woodland area being planted with traditional Sussex tree species on completion of the construction works.

“This system is working well, even considering how much rain we have had recently. It has been a real test for it,” said Alex. “The rainwater harvesting system we have had installed from Tanks-UK is one of the best I have come across. I found the company while visiting the Cereals show. The team were amenable, got back to me very quickly and had very good, reasonable prices. The two 30,000-litre tanks will provide enough to ensure that the only additional water we should need at the new farm centre is drinking water.”

Alongside feeding pipes in the yard, the system is connected to a pump which sends the rainwater to livestock troughs located on a small parcel of land which is rented out as grazing. There is also a water source in the bespoke sprayer shed, along with a 5,000-litre chemical tank underground.

Self-contained sprayer unit

The self-contained, covered sprayer unit is something which Alex says a lot of fellow farmers are interested in. He is already in touch with several organisations who want to arrange farm visits so that people can see what has been done.

Connected to the rainwater harvesting system, Alex will be able to fill up and wash down using recycled water. There is also a connection to the mains for extra peace of mind and to guarantee that there will always be water available for spraying.

The room has been designed with a special concrete lip in the floor which will hold back 110% of the sprayer’s contents. This means that if the sprayer ever spilt its entire load, it would be self-contained. This, along with the washing down water, then drains through to the 5,000-litre underground chemical tank, which will be connected to biofilters, also installed in the room.

“The fact that the sprayer can live in here too is a huge bonus,” said Alex, “and there is also a key store which can be accessed by drivers, so we can have deliveries made and locked up. It is certainly one part of the new farm which is drawing a lot of interest from other farmers.”

Grain storage

Opposite the bespoke sprayer unit sits the 1,000-tonne grain store complete with an ambient, under floor drying system from Welvent. Supplied and fitted by Morley Grain, who’s parent firm Mike Bartter Systems carried out the electrical work for the whole project, the system features a drive over floor and a series of air ducts and central partition. There is also a central control room with two grain drying fans, three modulating gas burners and a touch screen control unit.

“We are still getting used to the ambient drier,” said Alex. “My old drier worked on heat, but this system is based on ambient air. There is a sensor which monitors humidity and the gas burners are simply there to dry the air, which dries the grain.”
For increased flexibility, as Alex grows multiple commodities, a four-bay-barn has also been constructed opposite the grain store which is used to temporarily house grain at harvest before it is moved off farm.

Planning is problematic

While Alex is still settling into the site, given the same budget he believes there is nothing he would have done differently. However, with the planning issues experienced at the outset of the project, and the consequential sacrifice of the development of the two new builds, they point out that everything has been extremely tight financially.

“If the SDNPA had listened to the advice they were given on the viability of the residential scheme at Blakehurst Farm, then we would have had an extra £250,000 to play with and we could have made some of the buildings bigger,” said Alex.
The scheme, which now totals around 500 square-metres of building space, was also constructed on around 2,500-tonnes of chalk subbase which was required to build up the levels and create an even site. This chalk, fortunately, was sourced from the Angmering Park Estate, stopping 150 20-tonne lorries from disrupting the village and inconveniencing local residents, helping the environment, and saving a substantial amount of money.

“Without access to this chalk the project would have been almost impossible to implement,” said Nigel. “It really was instrumental in making the whole project viable because it saved somewhere in the region of £50,000. With all the planning difficulties it was extremely difficult to keep within the budget because quotes four years later are never the same as they were.”

Looking back over the project, both Jon and Nigel agree that planning is becoming increasingly challenging and while it is not putting farmers off from investing in new buildings, the cost of applications and the time it takes to secure planning permission is becoming an increasing burden on what can be achieved.

“Planning issues are partly due to the high constraints which are put on local planners, the high turnover of staff, and the number of reports, surveys and paperwork now required,” said Jon. “For instance, in certain areas you now have to do drainage design reports. This requires summer and winter rainfall evaluations, which obviously takes nearly a year and that slows the planning process right down.”

This has not only added huge costs to the Blakehurst Farm development, chipping away at the viability of the Hill Barn Farm scheme, the time delays have also meant that Alex’s farming plans have been inconveniently up in the air for the last four years.

“We were not spending money on the old farm because there was always the anticipation of moving to the new site,” said Alex. “This meant it was all getting run down and that led to uncertainty with our grain storage. The facilities at Blakehurst were not up to standard, so we were trying to move grain off farm as soon as possible after harvest. It was impossible to find an alternative solution because there was always the promise of the planning being accepted.”

It has however, been worth the wait and there is no doubt that Alex feels very privileged to have been able to design and construct a modern farm centre, which meets his individual farming needs. The residential units at Blakehurst Farm are now also underway and are expected to be on the market from summer 2020.

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic