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”

80% of tied cottage occupiers could face tax on empty bedrooms

Thank you to everybody who responded to my survey on tied housing.  I have now offered the following observations in response to the HMRC consultation’s suggestion that the tax and National Insurance treatment of tied housing as a benefit in kind should be based on its full rental value.

The suggestion that all employer provided accommodation should be taxed on the basis of its full market rental value could therefore have significant implications for [rural] occupiers, many of whom are likely to be at the lower end of the pay range.  This in turn is likely to lead to greater pay pressures on employers at a time when there is no sign of agricultural volatility decreasing and when those same employers are facing the additional costs of extended pension rights etc.
It is also worth highlighting the contrast with Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and Housing Benefit (HB) if the proposal to move to full rental value were to go ahead.  LHA and HB are both restricted according to the number of bedrooms the occupier is deemed to need and LHA is further restricted to the lower level of rent prevailing in the district.  80% of the respondents to my survey would find their entitlement restricted if they were LHA or HB claimants, yet would almost certainly find it impossible to move to alternative accommodation without changing their job.

The online survey was undertaken between Monday 4 January and Tuesday 2 February 2016 using SurveyMonkey. No attempt was made to define a particular population beyond occupiers of employer provided living accommodation generally, with attention drawn to the survey via social media (twitter, LinkedIn, charlescowap.wordpress.com) and direct approaches to contacts in the rural economy. I cannot claim that the survey is representative of a particular group, nor that the results should therefore be treated as compelling. It does however provide a persuasive insight into the housing arrangements for people employed in some sectors of the rural economy.

Key findings:

  • Number of respondents: 25, all of whom live in accommodation provided by employers
  • Twenty pay no rent for their accommodation (80%), while five pay some rent (20%). Nobody claimed to pay full market rent.
  • Size of accommodation ranged from one to six or more bedrooms, Table 1

Table One: Number of bedrooms

Number of bedrooms Number of dwellings
1 2
2 4
3 5
4 8
5 4
6 or more 2
Total 25

 

  • The twenty five dwellings were occupied by a total of 70 people, ranging from single occupiers to couples with one or more children.
  • One respondent worked in education. Most respondents (n=17) worked on rural estates and seven occupiers worked in agriculture. There were no respondents from the forestry, licensed trade, security, other estate or property management or finance and banking sectors.
  • Two respondents paid Income Tax or National Insurance on the value of their accommodation but the majority did not (n=19, 76%). One respondent did not wish to answer this question and a further three did not know.

The data were further analysed as to the suitability of the accommodation for the size of the family unit living there. This was done by reference to the qualifying bedroom criteria for Local Housing Allowance and Housing Benefit.

  • Of the 25 households, twenty would have had their entitlement to benefit restricted due to an excessive number of bedrooms. This would have affected 58 of the 70 people covered by the survey. Examples of those excluded included:
  • 10 out of 11 couples in the survey occupying property of two or more bedrooms;
  • Two couples with children over 16 occupying houses with more than four bedrooms;
  • Two couples with one child under 16 occupying houses with more than three bedrooms.

One respondent who had lived in employer provided accommodation offered the following observations in response to the survey:

“Having lived in service accommodation for many years I’d comment:

1 In accepting a position where I was required to live in service accommodation to meet my contractual obligations I had no choice in the location (edge of pig farm)type of housing, nearby education, or standard of maintenance and external environment

2 There is an implicit and unpaid expectation that there will be a significant and unpaid additional labour contribution – unlocking for out of hours lorries and loading/unloading, telephone, attending sick animals

3 Additional taxation of such housing as a benefit could break that relationship and would require an employer to pay more for out of hours service

4 We never thought of service accommodation as a benefit, but a liability, knowing that when job terminated we would have to move so saved and invested every penny to buy a flat first, then a house, for long term security” (Mr John Stones, former director Nuffield Farming Scholarships)

Implications

Questions 9 and 10 of the HMRC Consultation, Employer Provided Living Accommodation, Call for Evidence (January 2016) ask what proportion of employees provided with accommodation pay rent, how much rent do they pay, how is the value paid as rent calculated before going on to suggest that a move to market rental value would provide a simplification to the tax system.

The findings of this survey suggest that very few occupiers in the rural economy pay any rent at all, and that a move to full market rental value could have disproportionate effects on occupiers who have little or no choice over the size of the accommodation provided for them. A move to market rental value as the basis of taxable benefit is likely to lead to upward pressure on pay in order to compensate for the extra cost, and with this consequences for employer costs including increased National Insurance contributions.

 

 

Trustee Development Spring 2015

The personal responsibility of an estate trustee far exceeds that of a company director, shareholder, limited liability partner or sole trader. This responsibility extends to settlors and beneficiaries, and many others besides. Many people rely on rural estates for their livelihood and homes. Estates are under wider public scrutiny on a scale never experienced before. The complexities of farming and rural estate management have never been greater. New business opportunities abound for the creative estate manager, but the prospect of commercial reward comes with risk.

Working with the CLA we have devised a one day trustee training course which includes a tour of an award-winning estate. The Rhug estate will be our host on 17 March 2015, and we are delighted to be visiting Ragley Hall for the first time on 21 March.

The programme will ensure that estate trustees know their job: a vital safeguard for settlors, beneficiaries, estate managers, other professional advisers and, not least, trustees themselves.

Training Outcomes
On successful completion you should:
• Understand the extent of the personal responsibility of a trustee to beneficiaries;
• Understand the trustees’ role, authority and responsibility in the management of a rural estate;
• Participate effectively in trustees’ meetings and other trust business;
• Relate effectively to beneficiaries, settlors, staff, key advisers and other interested parties in the strategic management and direction of a rural estate

To book a place please follow this link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/gsuas1gvrojpiib/Trust%20Programme%20Spring%202015.pdf?dl=0

Alternatively, please email Charles Cowap, cdcowap@gmail.com or call Charles on 07947 706505, or use the contact form below. RICS members, chartered accountants and solicitors will be able to claim formal CPD in respect of their participation.

Budget 2014: Rural points

Nothing very obvious grabs the rural headlines in today’s budget other than the extension of CGT rollover relief to the new Basic Farm Payments.  This measure is backdated to 20 December 2013, the date the new payment entitlements were introduced.

The single most significant measure for most rural businesses will be the increase and extension of the Annual Investment Allowance.  Currently £250,000 a year this was due to revert to its former rate of £25,000 after December.  In a very welcome extension it is to be increased to £500,000 almost immediately (from April), and to be extended to 31 December 2015.  Complications which arise from straddling account year ends aside, this is most welcome for any farmer with serious investment plans in the next year or two.  The government reckons this will ‘cost’ £85 million in 2014-15 rising to £1,270 million in 2016/17.  However there will be a benefit to government from 2017-18 of £445 million over two years as annual writing down allowances are proportionately reduced.

The property world will also be interested in the extension of the special taxes which now apply to dwellings owned by ‘non-natural persons’ – generally meaning valuable London property held by companies, latterly to avoid SDLT on sales and transfers.  The threshold for 15% SDLT is reduced to £500,000 from £2 million immediately – although there are savings for those unfortunates who have exchanged contracts but not yet completed.  The threshold for ‘ATED’ – Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings – will also start to fall from 2015, to £1 million in the first year incurring an annual ATED charge of £7,000 and the following year to £500,000, leading to an annual ATED charge of £3,500.

Environmentalists will want to study the changes to the Carbon Price Floor.  The Carbon Price Support rate has been reduced to £18/tonne through to 2020.  It had been planned to raise it to £30 per tonne in 2009 prices by then.  However the EU Energy Trading Scheme has not worked well, and continuation at the current floor rate was seen as a threat to the competitiveness of the electricity generating industry.  This should take some pressure off electricity bills in the next few years (although marginally so in most cases).

Other more detailed points which may be relevant in the rural economy and to property include: Continue reading “Budget 2014: Rural points”

Woodland Complexities

The latest Rural Briefing from RICS addresses the challenging area of woodland taxation and valuation.  A lot can go wrong as the examples we presented at yesterday’s South East Rural Update Conference demonstrated.  One wood worth £70,000 but potentially five different Inheritance Tax bills ranging from nil to £28,000.  Capital Gains Tax was little better with potential bills on disposal ranging from less than £5,000 to more than £11,000.

A link to the briefing paper and an introduction to it can be found here.

These slides summarise the paper.  David Lewis and I presented them at the RICS South East Rural Update on 24 February 2014.

Two further observations emerged during the conference discussion. Ensuring that woodlands can be recognised as a business asset may help to tip the balance in a ‘Balfour’ appraisal of a rural estate, helping to ensure that the majority of estate activity can be recognised for Business Property Relief from Inheritance Tax. This would not only save potentially high IHT bills on woodland assets themselves, but also on other estate assets which might otherwise be unrelievable. Another follow-up question concerned the production of biomass for ‘own use’. This could indeed be a grey area, but one approach may be to ensure that the value of the timber sales is clearly accounted for in estate and woodland records.

 

CAP: Agric Fundamentalists v Enviro Fundamentalists – some inconvenient points

Decision week for Defra Secretary Owen Paterson.  He is due to announce the ‘modulation’ rate for England by the end of the week.  Will it be 9% as the NFU wants, or 15% as the RSPB demands?  Modulation is EU-speak for the amount of farming support that is diverted (modulated) into more general rural development and environmental schemes.  So the more money that is modulated, the less the direct farm payments through the Basic Farm Payment which will soon replace the Single Farm Payment.  The BBC provides some of the background here.

Last weekend saw a crescendo of lobbying on the issue, with the RSPB taking out full page national newspaper advertisements and the NFU writing to all MPs.  Some of the mood of the debate is caught in Mark Avery’s Sunday blog: all households will have to pay £400 to support farmers; this is nothing more than a payment for owning land and farming it (whither tenant farmers?).  On the other hand the NFU whinges that German farmers are only subject to modulation rates of 4.5%, French farmers 3% and the proposed Scottish rate is 9.5%.  This will hurt competitiveness, says the NFU, and disadvantage English farmers.

The environment lobby makes much of the ‘value’ that we get for CAP payments.  The more money that goes to Pillar II (EU-speak for the budget that pays for environmental and social goodies), the better. But farmers prefer Pillar I (EU-speak for the budget that pays for direct farm support payments) because that relates directly to the land they farm and how they farm it – and this can be defended strongly on grounds of food security (will you starve or me?).

But of course we are dealing with public policy here, and the reality is more complex that the advocates of Pillar I and II would like us to accept.  The new direct farm payments come with more environmental strings attached – crop diversification and ecological focus areas for example.  And more of the money is moved uphill – where it is desperately needed because much of upland farming is economically marginal at best – at the (moderate) expense of lowland areas.  Whatever Pillar II funding we are left with, will be far more focussed than previously – a better deal on the 35% of rural land which will benefit compared with the previous 70%?  Perhaps so if you are in the lucky areas; perhaps not otherwise – although tougher conditions on the Pillar I funding may make up the difference in some lowland areas.

The RSPB and others have set out their case for the ‘value’ we receive in return for our £400 per household.  This is a compelling and attractive case, immediately attractive to anybody who pays tax.  Given the propensity of Avery and others to dismiss the CAP payments as a mere subsidy on land ownership and farming, I have been pondering what we do get for the money we spend on farm support.

This is an incredibly complex question once you factor in food security and social justice.  To take some dairy figures, our consumption of milk products works out as follows:

Taking our daily consumption of fresh milk, butter, yogurt, cream, dairy desserts we on average consume about 4 litres of raw milk a week.  That’s a little over 200 litres a year.  With an average dairy cow now producing 7,327 litres a year, that means each cow is supporting 36 people.  This typical cow requires 0.5 ha  of land a year, and lives in an average herd of 125 cows.  So the average herd is providing dairy produce for 4,500 people.  At a direct CAP Single Farm payment cost of just over £200/ha, this equates to a cost per consumer supported with dairy products of just under £3.00/year (1).  Doesn’t seem much, but let’s cut the CAP farming support payments altogether.   What happens next?

There is little doubt that the main buyers of milk from farmers have an excellent idea of the costs of production – including the effects of farming subsidies – and set their prices accordingly.   Ergo – exit CAP, enter higher payments from the main buyers.  Despite the hyperbole to the contrary, the main farm produce buyers have no interest in the financial failure of their principal suppliers.  So prices are adjusted accordingly to make it worthwhile – but only just so for better than average producers – to continue to supply milk.  In compensation retail prices increase – for everybody.

So if you are hard up, milk has just gone up and you won’t save much tax if you weren’t paying any or much tax anyway.  But if you are better off milk, yogurt, cheese etc has also gone up, but the CAP isn’t costing you so much through your tax bill.  That’s to say that another element of redistribute taxation has been lost.

Meanwhile at lower rates of modulation fewer farmers are encouraged (forced?) to look at the financial effiency of their operation.  At the recent LEAF conference, Martin Wilksinson (HSBC Head of Agriculture) made the point that many farmers could more than make up their CAP losses with improved technical and financial effiency.  This is one of the real challenges to the farming industry: to move more farmers to the standards of the best.  England was the first region in the UK to move to Single Farm Payments based on the same average payment, away from a payment based on historic payments.  Wales and Scotland have been slower to move in this direction, and there seems a compelling case for England being better prepared for this round of CAP reform as a result.  One fear for the environmental lobby might be the real danger that some of the best lowland farmers may move away from CAP support altogether, joining those sections of the farming industry which have never had it anyway (eg pigs and poultry).

Meanwhile farmers need to promote the value we get from Pillar I payments by stressing any benefits they provide to the rest of the country as consumers and taxpayers.  For example, how many people is your farm feeding?  And at what cost in public support?  Will Santa be coming early for the farming lobby or the environment lobby?

-oOo-

Footnote 1: These calculations were surprisingly hard to source.  The DairyCo website provides daily consumption figures, and the average herd size and milk yield are available from Defra statistics.  DairyCo also provides a diagram showing how the UK’s milk supply is utilised.  My approach was to take the daily consumption of the dairy products listed (a list which is not complete) and work out how much raw milk is needed for each product, eg about 20 litres for 1 kg of butter; 10 litres for 1 kg of cheese.  This ignores some of the complexities of dairy processing, for example milk from which cream has been separated may reappear as another milk product and so on.  Some arithmetic followed based around stocking rates (0.5 ha/cow), total production/consumption figures and lowland Single Farm Payment Rates per hectare in the last year or two.  In short, lots of assumptions; lots of scope for error – but if anybody can highlight any errors or better still existing sources of information like this I would be delighted to know.