High Peak log business rises from the ashes of devastating fire and years of planning hell

A family-owned log firm in Smalldale is finally able to see the sparks for a bright future again after rebuilding the business from a devastating fire.

Luke Johnson and Joanne Barratt have endured a long battle to save Peak Logs after an electrical fault caused a catastrophic blaze which destroyed the drying kiln and storage facilities at Heath Farm in the winter of 2018.

The couple had only begun renting the farm months earlier, and overnight they went from doing a roaring trade to the brink of serious financial jeopardy – also threatening their plan to supplement the business through sheep farming.

Luke, 31, said: “We’d just spent thousands of pounds setting the system up. We lost all the machinery and all our dry wood just as we were going into the busiest time of the year.

Peak Logs owner Luke Johnson.

“We came very close to losing the business and to having to sell the flock.”

The couple managed to survive in the immediate aftermath by shipping logs in from Yorkshire, but their fight to save the business had only just begun.

Luke said: “We had to lay off a member of staff and we were living hand to mouth but I was planning to be back up and running by spring.

“It was very difficult to get money back from the insurance company. I worked day and night at it but we lost a lot. It should never have been like that.”

A forensic investigation concluded the fire had been started by an electrical fault.

The business was then dealt another axe-blow by the Peak District National Park Authority, when planning officers initially refused permission for a new timber processing building in 2019, saying it would mean the property’s primary use would no longer be agricultural, and would be out of character with the landscape.

Luke said: “We were trying to make the best of a bad situation, and move things around to keep the business area separate on the farm.

“We had one planning officer visit and she was really positive but then just before Christmas the application got rejected point blank.”

The refusal was accompanied by the threat of an enforcement order served by the PDNPA to stop all log production.

The fire destroyed the kiln used to dry logs and a storage area holding a whole winter's stock.

Luke’s planning consultant submitted an application to invoke permitted development rights for the proposed agricultural building, which was again rejected.

Undeterred, last summer they applied for permission to repurpose an existing building, and this time they came armed with support of more than 50 neighbours and High Peak MP Robert Largan.

That support ultimately swung the decision in their favour, although final details are still being negotiated.

Luke said: “I don’t cry much but, watching the approval come through on Zoom, I broke down in the kitchen.

Luke and Joanne have struggled to grow their sheep farming business without a full income from log sales.

“I’ve built this business up from the ground and we’d been put through hell for two years. We had jumped through all the planning hoops and were running out of options.”

Last month, Mr Largan revisited the farm to see the new kiln that is now up and running and meet some of the 200 lambs that were successfully delivered this season.

He said: “This precisely the kind of small business that should be promoted and encouraged to stay and grow in the High Peak.”

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High Peak MP Robert Largan helped argue the couple's case with planning officers at the Peak District National Park Authority.