Musical Chairs or How to choose a Site? | culture: the word on cheese
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Musical Chairs or How to choose a Site?

When Rose and I first spoke about their cheesemaking plans, she explained that one of the big obstacles was that they had not yet found an appropriate place on the estate to build the dairy. A couple of places had been proposed. She had her favourite. Neither one was without its problems.

One of them, Manor Farm, was close to Rose’s house and the main road through Nettlebed, with a lovely view over the hills looking to the south west, but, unfortunately, also with a tenant who was not far into his new lease. It was pretty unlikely that he might be prepared to give up one of his barns just because we quite wanted to turn it into a dairy.

The other site, known to us as the Grain Dryer Site, was basically a field next to a sawmill and a barn with grain drying silos, hence the name. There were no tenant issues here but equally the build would be much bigger and more expensive. There was no structure we could use, so everything, including the foundations and hardcore needed to be put down. It was also potentially more difficult to get our planning permission too, as it would need to be a completely new build.

Both sites offered a challenge but a third possibility presented itself. There was a field adjacent to the milking parlour and the cows on the farm itself. It wasn’t a popular option with the farm managers as they need to expand the milking parlour sometime in the next five years and need their space as much as possible, however in theory it was an option. Around this time, we called in Ivan Larcher to advise us and help design the dairy. He visited all 3 sites and pronounced in favour of the field by the milking parlour. A dairy should be close to the milk ideally after all. However shortly after Ivan’s visit, the farm managers decided that the field was too valuable to them to give up. The other sites on the estate were on flinty soil, no use for grazing land and not particularly easy to farm for arable too. This field was good grazing land for the cows and they needed it. It was a very fair argument and one we accepted. Back to our first two sites then.

With both of these sites problematic for the moment, we were considering going with the latter when Rose’s cousin made an offer of a barn on his farm, just off the estate. It was a big, wooden clad barn, attractive to look at and with plenty of space. The problem here was that Rose has a major business rule:

‘Don’t go into business with friends or family but become friends with people you go into business with.’

While an element of family involvement had to be on the cards if she wanted to build a creamery that would buy from the estate’s farm (itself a family business), using her cousin’s barn seemed unwise in case he had cause at any point to regret his offer and discovered a couple of years in that actually he didn’t like having cheesemaking on his doorstep. Lest family relations become strained, his kind offer was declined.

So we returned to the Grain Dryer site as it was, at least, tenantless. We adapted Ivan’s drawings to the new site and its orientation and investigated what we would need to get together in order to present an application for planning permission: a business plan, architects drawings, an ecologist’s report stating that we would not be damaging the environment. We emailed the highways agency to check they would have no objection. Along the way we made the unfortunate discovery that in Oxfordshire the council requires new builds to conform to BREEAM which sets out requirements for the new building to be as energy efficient as possible. While it largely applies to buildings larger than the one we planned to build, the council were still keen to enforce it. Then the Highways Agency got in touch – the access road had insufficient visibility, in their view, given the speed limit of the main road at that point.

This bombshell dropped just before Christmas leading to a slightly dispiriting atmosphere over the Christmas break and many a curse was sent the way of the Highways Agency in my house. Damn them, what were they trying to do, make sure people didn’t die on the roads or something? They needed us to cut down 250m of trees in both directions to improve the vision splay and unfortunately some of those trees were ancient woodland which would make the ecologist, who, until now, was very happy with our plans, because we are putting in a wetland system that will have a positive impact on wildlife, very unhappy indeed.

In the New Year we found a Highways Agency consultant (no I never knew they existed before now either) and they arranged to visit the site and look at the road. Meeting them was very positive, they pointed out that because the road was curved (although it doesn’t look that way on the maps), the cars were slowing down and drove at considerably less than the sixty miles an hour that was the speed limit. In their opinion this meant less trees needed taking back and the ancient woodland would be safe. However we still had a case to fight and despite the report and speed survey they intended to carry out we had no guarantee that the Highways Agency would agree. In addition, the architects and BREEAM consultant had indicated that we would need to raise around £600k to build the place and have it conform with the expected standards.

With a long and potentially complicated planning application in the offing, ever more reports that needed to be generated and a lot of cash to be raised, Rose’s mother came up with the extremely sensible suggestion that we look for a temporary home, so that we could at least start making cheese even though our planning application and build wasn’t finished. We looked at nearby light industrial units and found one that had potential. Not as picturesque as the dairy we wanted to build but perfectly functional if the costs stacked up. We wouldn’t be able to stay in it for all that long as it wasn’t big enough for us to make more than one type of cheese and we wouldn’t have much maturing space but it was worth doing the number crunching. Rose’s mother was also able to let us know that the tenant at site number one, Manor Farm, might be amenable to giving up one of his barns after all as, by now, his tenancy was coming to an end. We might be able to use this site after all.

A second and third visit to the industrial unit revealed some rather unpleasant and food tainting smells coming from a metalworks next door which ruled that site out of the running. However, good news, the tenant at Manor Farm was indeed agreeable to sharing his barns with us and what’s more, he likes cheese too so the prospect of a cheesemaking neighbour has its charms.

So the twisting turning route of our game of musical chairs has spun through the full 360 until we’re back at the place we first thought of. It has a structure already and hard foundations so the building costs won’t be as much as at the Grain Dryer site. It also only needs change of use planning permission rather than full planning permission for a new build. The signs are good. Ivan is designing us another dairy layout, ecologists are reporting, the highways shouldn’t have a problem with access as the road leads out into the village where the speed limit is a very sedate 30 miles an hour. The aim is to apply for planning permission in the next month. Keep your fingers crossed.

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