Meeting with CRAG: Westminster 6th February

The Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG), which advises the Conservative party on policy affecting rural issues, invited a range of new entrants to farming to come to their bimonthly meeting in Westminster on 6th February, in order to take part in a discussion on making it easier for farmers, foresters and smallholders to get planning permission to live on their land. This was coordinated by the LWA, and there were so many new entrants keen to come and share their experiences in this area that the group had to meet in a bigger room in the RICS building up the road from the Houses of Parliament, to accommodate the 10-15 CRAG committee members alongside these 50+ guests.

The main speaker was Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land, who gave a comprehensive picture of the problems faced by many when it comes to gaining planning permission: he argued that the current system is not fit for purpose, and many planning officers are almost automatically refusing planning simply to try and weed out applicants that are not really committed to making a living from the land. This leads to a huge amount of stress, expense and delay for those involved, especially as many do go on to succesfully gain permission on appeal.

The meeting then heard a presentation from Zoe Wangler from the Ecological Land Co-Operative. Zoe outlined the work achieved by the ELC since it was founded in 2009 as a not-for-profit social enterprise with the objective of providing opportunities for new entrants into farming. The ELC currently has 300 members and a coregroup of Directors who are elected by the membership. The primary model pursued by the ELC is creating a share issue to purchase agricultural land on which it then obtains planning permission for a small number of residential smallholdings. These are then offered to committed and experienced new entrants on an affordable 150-year agricultural business tenancy. The ELC also provides grants to support new tenants. The first ELC site was established at Greenham Reach in Mid Devon in 2012. The three holdings on the site were sold for £76,000 each with a £15,600 deposit and monthly repayments of £288 over 25-years. These three holdings averaged a gross profit of £3,800 per hectare in 2016/17. All three households have an ecological footprint 46% of the UK average.

One of the biggest challenges to the ELC model is that the planning system views them as counter-cultural: the small size of the holdings are not perceived as ‘serious’ or ‘proper’ farms. The first site at Greenham Reach took 67 weeks to secure planning permission – following a public inquiry that cost the LPA £18,000 in legal fees. The second site at Wealden in Sussex has already taken 45 weeks and is not likely to be decided until September 2018.

After this talk the chair opened up the discussion to questions or comments from the room; as well as several personal stories illustrating the problems, the general feeling in the room was that there is a desperate need to enable landworkers to live on the land, covering essential need (such as looking after livestock, delicate plants, security of equipment and charcoal burning), as well as pragmatic economic need since these livelihoods are usually marginal at best so paying rent or a mortgage on a property off site is often prohibitively expensive, especially when travel costs are factored in. The point was also made that planning officers often taken an ‘average’ agricultural salary of around £18,000-£20,000 pa directly from land produce as the benchmark of whether plannig permisson should be granted – ie whether the business plan is good enough – despite the fact that most current farmers earning that much or above will only be getting a fraction of that from the land itself, and the rest from diversified activites and subsidies – so new entrants looking to gain permission are at a disadvantage straight away and held to much higher standards than those currently enjoying living on their land.

Most in the room work on relatively small pieces of land and the discussion was especially focussed on the smaller scale; but as one CRAG member pointed out, the discussion should include all agricultural and forestry workers and business owners, and while agreeing with many of the points raised, advised against an ‘us-and-them’ mentality when it comes to large and small scale – which was generally accepted.

The farming minister the Rt. Hon George Eustice MP arrived after the main discussion due to an overruning late vote at the House of Commons, and spoke mainly about the direction of travel for agricultural policy post-Brexit, due to be published this spring. Central to this is a movement from direct area-based payments to payments being made in return for delivery of tangible public goods, such as wildlife conservation, water quality and soil care. Pillar I will be abolished and all agricultural payments will be focussed on encouraging agri-environmental benefits through Pillar 2.

He suggested that subsidies per se will end, with support being available for those converting to more environmentally friendly farming methods. ‘Support’ will take the form of help with investment in expenditure such as equipment; research and development; looking at the supply chain of food; and generally ‘coming together in an integrated way’. He also mentioned financial help for farmers’ risks via the introduction of an insurance scheme. Mr Eustice said that there would be a transition period of five years; and meanwhile DEFRA would be looking at transitioning by putting a cap on larger single farm payments.

Following his talk, questions and comments were again invited from the floor and a constructive discussion ensued. One speaker asked whether those farmers who were organic and/or farming in an ecological manner already would benefit from such a new scheme; Mr Eustice indicated that he had had discussions with people in the organic industry about this issue, to find out whether automatic qualification for support, or a bespoke scheme would be better; and said that the feeling was generally that a bespoke system would be best – probably following the current model for higher stewardship payments for organic land.

He was asked whether it will be possible for holdings of less than 5ha to claim payments in the future, and the idea of providing a flat rate payment for each holding of less than 5ha was proposed to overcome the concerns about bureaucratic expense. His response was that with the current system due to change radically in the next few years, there is no point in tinkering with it before then. He did not consider the flat rate payment idea politically expedient, as following Brexit it will be necessary to justify thoroughly all money spent on agriculture, hence the necessity to tie payments to the delivery of public benefit.

Another discussion revolved around the streamlining of regulation, which Mr Eustice viewed as a positive thing. It was suggested that in a planning context, the streamlining of policy for agricultural workers’ dwellings has led to a policy vacuum which is being unhelpfully filled by officials reverting to old policy. Far from smoothing the way for farmers and growers to develop their businesses unencumbered by bureaucracy, the lack of adequate targetted policy is leading to confusion, refusal of permissions and lengthy and stressful appeals. Unfortunately this comment missed the mark, and he responded with a long story about how one regulation leads to another and then another when it comes to tree planting, concluding that regulation should be minimised wherever possible.

Many of the questions relating to planning were responded to with answers more related to agricultural policy, and members of the CRAG Committee were helpful in drawing Mr Eustice’s attention to the planning focus of the meeting. He did appear to take on board by the end of the meeting that here were a group of energetic, committed young people, eager to pursue land-based occupations, who are feeling frustrated and inhibited by the planning system.

Many of the CRAG committee appeared impressed by the passion and dedication of those in the room, and hopefully some preconceptions were dispelled on all sides. One CRAG members suggested that there must be a surplus of agricuturally tied dwellings available on the market now as agricultural worker numbers have fallen so drastically over the last few decades; but I pointed out that in my personal experience of approaching agents in the Wiltshire area, asking about any agriculturally tied dwellings available, most agents didn’t even know what that meant; and the ones that did said they very rarely get any properties on their books (and none to date a year later…) – any inquries they do get relating to a tie is to get advice on how they can break it and get the full market value on the property. I put forward the idea that had come up in a previous research meeting (via planning consultant DanThePlan) of requiring county councils to keep a register of all those interested in agriculturally tied properties, to show the high demand and need (such a register is already required by law to be kept by councils for all those interested in self-building). This register could then also be used as a tool to ensure that any new agricultural ties given by planning officers on new dwellings would be harder to break than currently is the case, giving planning departments more confidence in issuing new permissions – and so hopefully making obtaining permission more likely.

The CRAG policy writer, Andrew Davis, committed in the meeting to refer to the issue of residential planning permission for farm smallholders in his policy advice paper, which goes to Cabinet at the end of this month. He also said he thinks the issue needs a policy paper of its own. There were plenty of positive noises, and the indication that the group will come back to this issue later in the year and consult more widely; we can but hope that they (and indeed all the political parties) take on this issue and some progress is made.

With thanks to Rebecca Laughton & Ed Hamer


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