Twenty-five year Environment Plan

The Natural Capital Committee has reported its recommendations for a 25-year Environment Plan.  There are five key sections to this important report:

  1. Vision, ambition and goals
  2. Investment needs
  3. Milestones
  4. Governance
  5. Agricultural subsidies post-Brexit

Twelve goals are offered; these include:

  • Breathable air that achieves international standards;
  • Flood protection by various means including natural flood management to protect everybody against a 0.5% probability of flooding:
  • All inland water to be of good status, and coastal waters all to be good for bathing;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions conforming to international targets, including emissions from land-based activities
  • Access to local greenspace and open recreation for all.  The following goals are suggested:
    • One hectare of local nature reserve per 1,000 people;
    • Two hectares of natural greenspace within 300 m of every home;
    • A 20 ha greenspace within 2 km of every home
    • No suggestion is made that the effect of this has been modelled and compared with the current state of provision.

Turning to investments the report proposes 11 items and these include:

  • 250,000 ha of woodland by 2040;
  • All peat to be in favourable condition;
  • Restoration of hydrological cycles including channel restoration and natural flood management measures;
  • New National Parks (no suggestions as to where);
  • Farm funding to be limited to public goods and high welfare standards;
  • Working closely with Local Nature Partnerships;
  • Developer contributions via planning etc to be pooled for natural capital investment;
  • An enhanced capacity for citizen action and involvement;
  • Natural Capital Net Gain principle which would apply to planning, environmental regulation and public procurement wherever possible;
  • Despite being referred to as investments, none of these are funded or compared with the status quo.

Five year milestones are proposed, which need to be supported by a natural capital risk register; accounting measures; cost benefit appraisal approaches and natural capital balance sheets.  Pp 8 and 9 of the report make particular mention of the private sector in this respect but do not expand on this point.

It is proposed that there should be a State of the Environment Report by 2019 and that this should be updated regularly.  For governance the committee propose that the 25 year Environment Plan should be placed on a statutory footing under the authority of a single organisation, with a separate independent body on the lines of the National Audit Office to report regularly on progress.

The final section is concerned with agricultural policy and is perhaps the vaguest part of the report.  Much is made of the examples of market orientated projects like South West Water’s involvement in Upstream Thinking.  Although the report claims that several water companies are involved in such schemes, this is the only example to be cited.  There are indeed other examples and it is a shame that the report does not address more fully the challenges in developing new thinking in this area compared with its more defined focus in earlier sections.

Perhaps on the other hand however, this should be welcomed by those of us who have spent a lifetime involved in day to day management of rural estates and farms as an opportunity still to bring practical common sense and hard-earned local knowledge to further deliberations on these matters.

This provides the perfect opportunity to finish on an event being organised by the Ecosystem Knowledge Network with the Tatton Estate and the Country Land and Business Association on Natural Capital for Rural Estate Professionals at the end of October.  The latest report from the Natural Capital Committee is an important step forward in defining our rural future – do come and join us to see how this might begin to look on the ground.

 

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Rural Proofing: a key reference for rural activists and analysts

Rural analysts and activists take note.  Defra has updated its rural proofing guidance this week.  This will be a key reference for anybody interested in the development and impact of policies which affect rural areas.  Why?

Because policy measures are meant to have been ‘rural proofed’.  So the criteria for rural proofing are important because they provide a framework for the independent evaluation of rural impact.  They are also therefore a sound basis on which to challenge measures which may adversely affect rural economic, social and environmental interests, or to promote measures which will support these interests.

The Defra guidance tells us:

Thriving rural communities are vital to the English economy. A fifth of us live in rural areas and they are home to a quarter of England’s businesses, and generate 16.5% of the English economy. Rural areas face particular challenges around distance, sparsity and demography and it is important that government policies consider these properly.
Rural proofing is about understanding the impacts of policies in rural areas. It ensures that these areas receive fair and equitable policy outcomes. This guidance sets out a four- stage process to achieve this objective.

Figure One of the Defra Guidance offers this four stage process for rural-proofing:

Rural Proofing Process

The Guidance goes on to suggest this way to assess rural impact:

Rural Impact How to Assess

Worth a look for anybody concerned with rural policy and development nationally, regionally or locally.

New Brexit Blog

I have set up a new blog site solely dedicated to Brexit, Farming and the Rural Economy.

You can see it here, and in particular a page of links to useful information which I hope to keep updated with relevant publications and other sources of Brexit information as they appear.

I hope you will find it a useful resource.  Please send in any suggestions for material you think is needed, or other suggestions for its development.

Brexit and the rural economy

A first reaction to the referendum ‘Brexit’ decision from a group of postgraduate students at Harper Adams University who have been studying Land Use and Management this week.

Project Brexit

The 18 students have worked rapidly in small groups this morning to appraise the impact on different sectors of the rural economy, and the actions that land managers, owners and occupiers should now be considering.  Here they are:

Agriculture: the issues here have been well rehearsed.  What will replace the Common Agricultural Policy?  If anything?  On what terms will we trade with the EU, both for sales of our produce and purchase of our inputs?  Is there an opportunity in this to open or develop new markets at home or abroad?  One paradox is that enhanced regulation of our farming and food industry may add to the quality perception of British food once outside the EU.  But our markets may then be open to genetically-modified crops, and it may be possible to accelerate the uptake of GM technology here.

Scale and efficiency look as if they will become even more important and we might expect to see small farms going to the wall and large farms getting larger.  On the margins some land may switch from sheep production to forestry if there are shortfalls in support.

Knowledge for farming may take a hit: early pest and disease intelligence from continental Europe may become less accessible, and investment in research and development may fall without access to EU funding.  If capital values fall, problems may in turn emerge over borrowing ratios and liquidity.

Labour availability may also limit the production of some higher value crops, even in the short term if seasonal workers choose EU destinations with longer term prospects for free movement of labour.

A wider question over the management of the industry as a whole: will the emphasis on compliance with Basic Payment requirements start to fall away, with what consequences for the wider environment of the countryside?

Land and property: Savills shares saw a 20% drop at one point, wiping £824 million off the value of the company.  House builders fared worse.  This points to a slow down in the rate of house construction, exacerbated by the danger of higher input costs and more difficulty in recruitment given the reliance of construction on EU workers.  This in turn knocks on to the demand for development land, and its price.  Farmers may still be in the market for land if they see bargains available on which they could expand, but foreign buyers are likely to hold off and investment buyers may be far less confident of their own positions given the impact on financial services.  Could this be good news for new entrants?  Even if land prices do drop the prospects of access to land by this route remain unrealistic.  A more likely scenario is for the market to go into virtual stasis, and for prices to do no more than tick over in a narrow price band.  The clear message here: only sell now if you have to.  Rather than sell look at short term options like farm business tenancies.

Forestry: much of the return on investment in forestry comes in the form of capital appreciation.  Will land prices wobble?  A weaker pound could push up the cost of the 60% of our timber we import, in turn pushing up prices to the construction industry while stimulating demand for home grown timber  Good news for foresters could be bad news for processors and end users.  Although the UK Forestry Standard has a EU origin it is now embedded in UK legislation.  The UK however has no planting targets but we do know that there will be severe shortages of home grown timber in 50 or 60 years due to a lack of planting now.  Might changes in agricultural policy lead to the abandonment of marginal land sheep farming, making this ground available for afforestation?  It’s hard to see where planting land may come from otherwise.

Forestry disease and pest control may benefit if plant health import regulations can be imposed rigorously.  But this will require significant expenditure on plant health inspectors.  Will this be a priority for future spending?

Renewables, energy and the environment:  Many of our environmental objectives embody wider obligations than the EU alone, for example our membership of the UN, adoption of the Kyoto protocol and the outcomes of the Paris climate talks.  But without pressure from fellow EU members to achieve the UK target of carbon reduction of 80% against 1990 levels by 2050, will there be sufficient pressure on the government here to make sure we stick to these obligations?

CAP Pillar 2 environmental and rural development schemes are bound to be tied up with whatever happens to domestic agricultural and environmental policy.  The directives on bathing waters and birds and habitat are an EU obligation, but if we stick with the European Economic Area we will still be subject to controls on pollution, industry, energy policy, chemical safety rules and rules on product liability.

The internal energy market in the EU may also become more difficult.  More agreements with specific countries are likely to be needed and the overall effect may be to increase the price of new interconnectors.  Increased investment costs will in turn push energy prices up.  This in turn could foster home production of renewable energy, but companies like Siemens may need to reconsider the use of the UK as a production base for the EU.  The departure of major suppliers could in turn lead to price rises on kit putting further pressure on energy prices.

So: one door has closed firmly and for good.  Who knows where the other doors are or what lies behind them?  The outlook is still very substantially speculative beyond the short-term market reactions.  The future belongs to those who will be the most vigilant and opportunistic.

Budget 2016: Rural and property points

Headline points from the 2016 Budget for the rural economy and property. Get out of sugar, get into tunnelling, run a micro-business on the side, infrastructure needs you, take your capital gains now, incorporation is looking better and better unless you intend to sell your professional services to the public sector, drink whisky and beer not wine. Despite this, old age and death are beginning to look expensive.

A £3.5 bn reduction in public expenditure is not intended to dent George Osborne’s claim that, “We [ie the Conservative Government] are the builders”. Practically this means Continue reading “Budget 2016: Rural and property points”

Estates Gazette Rural View: Christmas Reading

I have been writing a quarterly column for the Estates Gazette since 2013 called Rural View.  This year’s articles have covered Water, Forestry, Scotland and farming safety.  If you’d like to catch up with any of the articles over the Christmas holiday, here they are:

Farming Safety: EG Rural View Dec 14 H&S

Scotland: Rural View Sep 2014

Forestry and Woodland Valuation and TaxationEG Rural View May 2014 Forestry

Water: EG Rural View February 14 Water

Meanwhile a happy Christmas and prosperous new year to all my readers and visitors.

Valuation: Cross-roads or cul-de-sac?

This was the title of my presentation at the RICS Wales Rural Conference held on Tuesday 9 December 2014 in Llandrindod Wells.  Here are the slides.

The contrast between the complexities of valuing woodland for taxation purposes and renewable energy installations is meant to indicate the broad sweep of the challenge facing the modern rural valuer. This is a challenge which is likely to be become broader and more complex with the need to consider the valuation of natural services and capital. Equally the accountability of valuers is only set to grow as the two case updates demonstrate.