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Farmland to non-farmers

Nick Woolley, FRICS, is one of the UK’s leading project and asset managers.  Having started out as a joint tenant on a 400 acre mixed farm, he went on to manage portfolios of farms and estates before becoming Chief Land Agent to the Prudential in 1979, managing 85,000 acres.  He set up Newmarket-based Woolley & Company in 1995.   In this article he discusses the implications of the increasing amount of farmland which is now owned by non-farmers

“We are part of the earth and it is part of us … What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”  Spoken  150 years ago by Native Indian Chief Seattle, these words ring true today, reminding us of our dependence on and responsibility for the land on which we live.  Being responsible for the land means knowing how to look after it and, when you consider that over 50% of the farmland which changed hands in 2007 went to non-farmers, it’s not surprising that alarm bells are ringing.

Why is land ownership so attractive to non-farmers?   For a start, farmland in many areas is still undervalued but unlikely to remain so.  Owners of agricultural land and forestry pay no inheritance tax on these assets provided they have been held for at least two years before death and there are also ways to mitigate capital gains tax.  For those who don’t care about the protection of rural England, the Government’s house building plans are driving up the value of land within designated areas or adjacent to land which already has planning permission.

Of course, there is the amenity and lifestyle value of ‘residential farmland’, much of it in our region, and fuelled by huge City bonuses over the last few years.  Much has  been written about the ‘new Victorians,’ a generation of the super rich with the spending power to buy up many of our country estates, but perhaps without the social conscience or understanding of their Victorian forebears.  The real Victorians were by the very nature of the times they lived in much closer to nature.  Many of them invested huge sums into working with nature to create some enduring landscapes and country estates.

My experience of working with some of the ‘new Victorians’ indicates that they have a different mindset.  Cash rich and time poor, they want things quickly and nature, of course, does not do ‘urgent.’  Whether they’ve bought a ‘large garden’ of 50 acres or 5,000 acres, many of them have no knowledge of land management and little feeling for the responsibility for the precious resource they have taken on.

Of course, I paint a bleak picture.  Not all non-farming landowners are like this.  Take the late Paul van Vlissingen, a Dutch magnate and owner of the Letterewe Estate in Scotland, who worked tirelessly to conserve his land.  He had little truck with people who asked him what it was like to ‘own so much land.’  ‘How can I say I own these rocks that have been here for 300 million years?  I am simply honoured to have been their guardian for a short while,’ was his response.

But, in a world where few are as enlightened as Paul van Vlissingen, how can we encourage our new generation of non-farming landowners to get the best out of their land – for their sakes, for ours and for those who follow?

Of course, the best guardians of the countryside are those who understand it and know how to manage it so the single most important task is to persuade non-farming landowners to seek the right type of support for their land and then help them find it.

We can start by pointing them in the direction of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), a registered charity, which has been helping landowners understand the natural world and care for land in a sustainable way while also increasing its profitability – a win for the landowner and for us.  FWAG is unique in the way it operates, employing ecologists and other experts, who really understand the agricultural economy at a time of great change, to work with landowners, even those with no experience.

Some landowners may turn to a farmer for help but they are likely to be inexperienced in the legalities of drawing up contracts and tenancy agreements.  This leaves them vulnerable to those farmers, fortunately in the minority these days, who are less than environmentally-minded and who may take the opportunity to farm the land intensively to the detriment of the its value and of the landscape.

To protect them, landowners need the advice of a chartered surveyor, highly experienced in Farm Business Tenancies, who will draw up a suitable agreement and ensure that the land receives the experienced husbandry it requires to conserve the very essence of what’s important to them.

Finally, landowners purchasing large estates, may require the support of an asset manager – a highly qualified and experienced professional, experienced in running large portfolios and in clinical financial analysis, who will take a ‘helicopter’ view of the estate and who works purely at a strategic level to translate the landowner’s objectives into the activities which will most cost effectively deliver them as I explained in my last article.

While many farmers are unhappy at the encroachment of the ‘new Victorians’ into our rural landscapes, the fact is that they are here to stay and the proportion of farmland they own will, if anything, increase over the next ten years.  The challenge for all of us passionate about maintaining our rich environmental heritage is to work with them to help them understand and appreciate our countryside so that they come to share our passion to conserve and enhance it.

If we can achieve this with at least some of them, it will create opportunities for those of us already working in the sector and make a positive contribution to the creation of a sustainable future for rural Britain in a changing world.

Anglia Farmer | March 2008

March 1st, 2008
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