Government grants for thatching work to historical and listed thatched properties has been a way of helping thatch owners cope with the financial burden of maintaining their roofs and also ensuring that this work is carried out using the requisite materials and in a way that replicates the look of historic thatch.
On the face of it such aims are laudable, and supporters of the grant system say it is one way that historic thatch can be maintained for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. They argue not to do so would mean more ‘modern’ materials such as water reed replacing less common materials such as marram grass or straw and this would therefore change the look of these roofs. In some ways though, such safe guards are already in place (in the UK) with stringent regulations in place on using like for like materials – in other words if a roof has a certain type of thatch then it has to be thatched in the same material and planning permission would have to be sought to change it.
Grant aiding of thatch is not commonplace and, in our experience, has been used mainly in Northern Ireland and Ireland, where sadly historic thatch roofs have for many decades been on a steady and seemingly irreversible decline. When we talk about the loss of a thatch roof or for that matter any roof, we are often looking at the total loss of the property which makes any subsequent restoration even more expensive. Unfortunately, it will always be the case if a property is unoccupied and ownerless no amount of rules and regulations will stop its decay and proponents of the grants system say this is even more reason to give financial help before this stage is reached.
However, we do need to ask if the decline in historic thatch is on-going then what are the reasons?
Is it because the grants system is not widespread enough – are not enough properties receiving grant aid? Is it because there is something intrinsically wrong with the workings of the grant system? Is it because of the non-availability of more traditional materials like marram grass or perhaps the lack of Thatchers who are either able or willing to use such materials? Dare I say it, is it because there is a widespread feeling out there that a lot of these more humble dwellings are not really worth saving and that such properties are no longer desirable with all the restrictions and checks put on altering and improving them for modern 21st century living? I would hazard a guess that it’s a combination of all the above, but for the purposes of this discussion it is worth examining the grants system which has been viewed as a very important measure to stem the loss of historic thatch.
Whilst some grants are given to buildings which are of national importance many of which are museums (e.g. Hazlett House and the Andrew Jackson Cottage in Northern Ireland, Burns Cottage in Scotland and Anne Hathaways Cottage in England), the vast majority are given to private home owners and some question not only the efficacy of the system but also of allowing people to use tax payers’ money to maintain their roofs; they argue that these thatch owners knew when they purchased their properties that they had a thatch roof and as such should pay for their maintenance. Others say that if it wasn’t for such people, some of whom have inherited these properties, then it would be most likely that even more thatch properties would be lost forever and as such they should receive all the help they can be given.
To examine how effective the grants system is and whether historic thatch buildings are being saved, we need to look at the way the grants system is organised but before doing so it is worth a comment about the nature of thatch roofs.
When we talk of the conservation of any building we look at extending its life in a largely unchanged format. Materials used in the construction and repair of such buildings such as stone and wood will last for centuries and slate and tiles will undoubtably last longer than thatch. The lifespan of thatch is at best 40-50 years and during this time a roof will have undergone extensive renovation work . . . yes, some roofs will last longer but these are the exception. So, when people say thatch roofs are old what they really mean is the buildings that have thatch roofs can be old, but the thatch certainly won’t be – unless one includes historic layers of thatch which are unseen and lie below the top coat. I would argue this differentiation between types of materials has great bearing on how thatch is treated or rather how it should be treated.
By their definition, old thatch buildings often have a wide variety of more unusual thatch materials which are often less commonplace today. These may be oat straw, flax marram rushes, heather etc. These materials and the way they were applied lead to distinct styles of thatching which many say are important to maintain. Most Thatchers in contrast will rarely be asked to thatch in anything other than reed or straw. We for example have never thatched in marram or flax and I would therefore leave such work to others who have more experience with these materials especially as their lifespan is limited. The danger for conservationists and those involved with maintaining our build heritage is of treating thatch as one would stone and wood which not only have an infinitely longer lifespan but where the work undertaken is more likely to follow an agreed uniform methodology and therefore any expenditure is easier to justify as it is spread over a much longer period.
Additionally, because thatching is a craft and every Thatcher will approach a roof differently, the reasons one Thatcher has for doing something may not even be considered by another. Anyone can call themselves a Master Thatcher and there are no formal qualifications or a manual on thatching. The special nature of thatch is its non-durability and so if a roof doesn’t last as long as expected, can this be blamed on the materials, the workmanship or just wrong decision making on the part of the Thatcher? For example, a Thatcher may lay a very nice coat of straw, but if in his decision-making process, he has not made the foundation of the old thatch level and strong then in a few years the top coat he applies may start to sink and develop weak areas.
In recent years thatch owners in Northern Ireland with historic homes have had the opportunity to submit applications to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
There are two aspects to the successful working of any grants system. The first concerns the mainly office-based administration part from receiving applications, choosing who will receive a grant and on what basis and then paying out the grant on completion of the work. Think of it a bit like a school deciding who to admit once certain criteria have been met such as maybe the pupil residing in the school catchment area or passing an entrance exam.
The second is the extent to which people where the grant has been approved have the work monitored and checked. Clearly the system has to be policed in some way so what was agreed between the recipient of the grant and the ‘deliverer’ of the grant actually takes place. To use the school analogy again once the pupils start at school their progress has to be monitored.
For any grant system to work the two aspects should work in harmony and therein for me lie fundamental problems.
As a Thatcher I have experienced the grant system on upwards of twenty jobs. I recall on one occasion completing a re-ridging job in Ireland and the happy thatch owner saying to me that she would see us again in 7 years. I was a bit taken aback at this pointed out the work we had done should last at least 10 years to which she replied that she would be eligible for a grant in another 7 years and so as long as the roof lasted that long she would be more than happy.
Another drawback with the grants system is the way in can attract numerous thatch owners looking for financial handouts even though work may not be necessary. The fear of grants not being available in the future leads some to prematurely attempt to make a case for the need for work. Thatchers who may not have a very full order book or who do not rely solely on a thatching income are quite happy to go along with this. The unintended consequence is that money which could have been better spent on much more ‘needy’ roofs is fritted away, especially if the owners of such properties and elderly and don’t have access to a computer and are unaware of what help is available.
Another consequence is if the Thatcher and the thatch owner know there is a likelihood of a regular grant there is a danger that the Thatcher may not bother ensuring his quality of work is what it could be, and the thatch owners may not be too concerned either because they will not be paying for the works. The way to avoid such scenario is for the administrators of the grant to visit each thatch owner and to assess the condition of the roof, taking into account its history and to after detailed consultation to write a detailed specification of works prior to any work starting.
They are quite entitled to come to a different conclusion than a Thatcher may do, as to what is in the best interests of the roof. Some Thatchers may view all roofs as museum artefacts whereby every aspect of it with its decayed timbers should be preserved irrespective of the wishes of the owners. Other Thatchers may see all old roofs as needing to be rebuilt and will push for modern screw fixings to be used. Whatever decision is arrived at is rarely down to a thatcher alone. Consideration of Fire barriers, insulation, ventilation and head height of ceilings may well pay a part in the outcome. To come to a decision or middle way a non-thatcher not only needs quite a knowledge of thatching, but must engage with the owners, architects and others whose knowledge of thatch will also be very limited – but then being an administrator of a grant and knowing little about the detail of thatching is surely no way to proceed and certainly a tick box sheet will not be sufficient.
Of course, it follows that if the people who make decisions about the awarding of grants are not necessarily best placed to verify if the work carried out has been done to a good standard then it also follows that during the thatching process the finer details of the work can also be missed. Such details may be how much of the old thatch is removed, what thickness the new thatch has been put on, how the thatch is fixed down, what spacings and depth these fixings may be. All such factors will greatly influence how long the roof will last and not being able to check these methods is a major flaw. Is this lack of knowledge the reason why site inspections are never carried out except to maybe assess what percentage of the work has been completed so a part payment can be made?
Any grant system is rightly subject to budgetary restrictions, but thatch owners are also given a ‘window’ during the financial year when the work has to be completed. Often timescales are ridiculously tight between opening the grants process and submitting quotes for the work. Also the time between given approval for the work to take place and completing the work can be even tighter and the thatch owner is in the hands of a Thatcher who may have already committed himself to doing other work. For example, on one occasion we received instruction to carry out a 5-week thatching job in mid-January with a completion date of the third week of March and at a time of year when days are short, and the winter weather can be at its worst. It is not uncommon for Thatchers to have a 12-month waiting list and it seems unfair for the thatch owner to forfeit his grant because the Thatcher cannot schedule to fit the work in or worse still to not receive his promised grant because the thatcher may have run over the completion date deadline.
When a grant is paid, it is paid to the thatch owner and not the thatcher despite the thatcher engaging in a contract with the thatch owner and sometimes the thatch owner will be unable to pay the thatcher until they have received all or part of the grant. We try and make sure before we start work if this is going to be the case, so we can plan our shortfall in cash flow accordingly. There is no way the Thatcher will know when the thatch owner has received any monies because the grants people will not divulge this information to us. This three-way arrangement is not ideal.
Finally, we must look at the suitability or not of the Thatchers that carry out the work. If there is no agreed definition of what a Master Thatcher is or qualifications to thatch, then on what basis can anyone know the person chosen to do the work is in any way proficient? Also, is the Thatcher ever asked if they have the necessary business Insurances in place? – It seems incredulous to me that there appears to be a random unspecified way that Thatchers are asked to provide quotes without any wider checks into their business’s. Perhaps this is because of the paucity of any Thatchers, especially in areas where thatch is not commonplace and so to just get any Thatcher to price a job is deemed an achievement. With any work, the individual who physically does the work is the key to its success or not. Our experience is that we are never asked which individuals will be carrying out the work and therefore what is to stop us or any other Thatcher sub-contracting the work out to another Thatcher? Perhaps this is because there is a mistaken assumption that the Thatcher who quotes on the work will always be the one doing it? Also, who is checking that the work conforms to health and safety regulations? If Thatchers are not carrying the same overheads, then to compare them on price alone cannot be realistic if one is working outside the letter of the law – i.e. not using scaffolding and another has included this. In short, on what basis does one become an approved Thatcher?
Unfortunately, as we have seen, there are so many items within the grants system that just don’t work. Its failings need wider discussion and can no longer be entrusted to well-meaning conservationists employed in our councils as grant administrators. The issues must be debated, argued over and refined by a wider audience and include thatch owners, Thatchers and others such as Architects, Planners and Builders. Until this happens then far from protecting thatched properties we will continue to see their demise.