Say the words “staff accommodation”, and Gosford Park-esque images of country houses with a bejewelled upstairs and an aproned downstairs immediately spring to mind. But the truth is that few large yards can function well without grooms living on site.
“Once there are more than 10 stables, the need for staff accommodation becomes important, and with more than 20 boxes it’s crucial,” says specialist agent George Windsor Clive. “Racing yards need a lad for every four horses and often have hostels for staff. Competition yards usually have similar requirements. Stud farms have less staff per horse, but a 12-box yard should justify a staff cottage.”
A good set-up, where a groom’s cottage, stables and tackroom are reasonably close, can make the difference between good and bad stable management. It ensures people can be immediately at hand in an emergency and can keep a close eye on horses and tack.
“I have valuable horses and it’s vital to be close by. The closer the girls are to the stables, the more likely they are to hear any noises,” says eventer Nick Gauntlett. “Anybody who comes into the yard has to walk past the girls’ cottage to get to the horses.”
Alas, not every property comes with a purpose-built place for staff, and owners often have to get creative. Many try to fit a flat above their stable block.
“This is of particular importance to those with polo ponies because they are more labour-intensive,” says John Little of Hamptons International.
A slightly more expensive option is to convert a barn or outbuilding into a cottage or, where possible, build one from scratch. Both conversions and new builds will require planning permission and obtaining it is far from a foregone conclusion.
According to rural chartered surveyor Judith Norris, it is easier to get permission for a conversion. “If you have an existing building, you’re off to a good start, but this may mean that permission for a stand-alone dwelling is granted with an equestrian occupancy condition, so beware,” she says.
If converting isn’t possible, fitting a mobile home on the grounds is an easier alternative, but that, too, will require permission. Under the new Planning Policy Statement 7, consent for a temporary residence is conditional to proving there is a functional need for workers to be at hand most of the time — such as animal welfare or, to a lesser extent, security — and evidence that the enterprise has a sound financial future.
“If you prove your business is viable, planning authorities will allow you a mobile home. After three years, you can ask for a permanent dwelling,” says Norris.
Beyond planning, money is the other concern when looking for a property with staff accommodation.
“If money were no object, it would be ideal for the head girl to have separate accommodation, rather than live with the students,” says Gauntlett. “It’s nicer for students to stay together so they can socialise and cook for each other. But it’s difficult for the head girl to maintain authority when she lives with people.”
A property with a self-contained cottage is usually more expensive than one with a stable flat, and the more accommodation available, the higher the price tag. However, this is an investment that usually pays back.
“We have been asked to market large yards without a staff flat, mobile home or cottage, and they simply don’t sell well,” says Diana Rowell of Churchill Country & Equestrian. “Our advice to vendors of this type of property is always to try to get planning permission or convert a building to get ancillary accommodation. Another plus point is that out of season, you may be able to rent out the accommodation.”