HB 121 Solicitors

Rural

How has it been on the rural landscape during Covid?

Well, the whole country is affected but we’re probably affected in different ways to other areas. For farmers of course we have to continue to look after our livestock, or crops. We generally work outside so we haven’t had to worry much about isolating from that point of view. But deliveries, collections, visits, markets and farm shops have been greatly affected.

Some firms are running auctions on-line but not being present really takes away so much of the point of auction sales. Also, the simple mixing with friends and other farmers is a lot of the point especially as being a farmer is so often a solitary occupation.

Milk markets have been altered. For market gardeners at least garden centres are now open so plants and flowers have been, in some cases, saved but a good share of the market, being restaurants, cafes, and similar have been snatched away. Pickers and seasonal workers were always going to be a problem after Brexit but suddenly even more so. The Support of Royalty in getting other workers to potentially help as well as highlighting the extent of the difficulties will help but how much this will directly help is difficult to say. Workers who are furloughed can get alternative employment on farms if their contract permits.

So much in agriculture depends on good forward planning and the unpredictability of everything at the moment makes this very difficult if not impossible. Virtual business meetings (via Zoom or similar) that would have been an unknown way of doing business to many of us only at the early part of the year have no become an acceptable, even usual, way of having meetings – will this continue after the crisis is over. I suspect we’ll go back to face-to- face meetings more than currently but virtual meetings will have found a way into the normal way of doing business.

Rights of way crossing land have always been a potentially fraught area but with contamination, distancing and so many other issues these have become more of a worry than ever.

Fly tipping, often the bane of rural landowner’s live, has become even more of a problem especially since Council Tips (now beginning to open) were closed. Some Councils seemed able to react to this problem (which, though understandably, they helped to create) better than others.

Other initiatives have helped he problem of late payments which are a difficulty in any years and can’t be expected to improve or even remain as last year in the current situation. There are the general Small Business Grant Schemes that most farmers will be able to take advantage of. Other initiatives have helped such as Bridging payments to cover 75% of money owed to Farmers in outstanding 2019 Claims for Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship. Also the claims window for those schemes (and Basic Farm Payment) have been extended. Farm Inspection regimes have been relaxed where possible (sometimes as there was no choice) and it is to be expected that the catch up process will burden the Inspectorate for some time.

Staff issues such as Furloughing (which has been beneficial to the Rural Economy as well – see above) have helped the situation but created administrative headaches for persons not used to dealing with Governmental websites (except RPA) which to me always seem to have been designed by people who won’t have to use them! PPE has to be provided as appropriate for staff and general Health and Safety concerns have been heightened.

Will we ever get back to normal? For some of our activities it’s too late for current activities and too much crop or similar have been wasted and had to be thrown away. Banks say they are supporting but in practice such support is not always forthcoming and even if it is not always available in time. People, including Landlords, expect to be paid on time and many feel duty bound to meet this expectation but Income has in so many ways dried to a trickle.

So, as lockdown is being lifted in instalments what have we to look forward to? While the pandemic has occupied the front of our minds in more recent times things will get to some sort of normal. Brexit deals are still to be done and the threat of trade deals with other countries, particularly USA, where food standards are different to ours. At least we have a Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in George Eustice who is from farming stock and understands the issues. But there are those in Government who think International Trade is paramount. And well-done George for relaxing the problematic 3 Crop Rule – at least for now.

We have the Agriculture Bill about which the details are pretty vague. We do know that the Basic Farm Payment is being given a phased withdrawal so that farmers are instead rewarded for the work they do to enhance the environment. In the short term the Government have guaranteed payments.

So far as diversification is concerned and in particular lettings Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) will continue to cause headaches as many rural properties will not meet the standards and work to improve them will often not be economic. There are exemptions but not always easy to establish. This applies (though it can be in different ways) to residential and commercial properties. And holiday lettings have their rules too. In this fast-changing market where regulations are regularly changing we would always recommend using a qualified established agent who can sort things out for you.

In Wales rules for Tenancies are changing soon (date yet to be announced at the time of writing) and even more so is the need for using an agent who can make sure things are done properly for you.

If there is one thing (just one?) that this crisis has taught us it is that carrying on as we always have will not do any more. We need to think of the future and maximising our assets. Solar initiatives are not as attractive as they were but are certainly worth exploring, the Planning system is fairly benign at the moment allowing for some development and diversification. Who can say how markets will get back to normal, and by how much but new markets usually appear after such a crisis as well as new ways of doing business.

At HB 121 Solicitors we can help in all sorts of ways from general advice and just “chatting things through” to preparing Leases and Tenancy Agreements and Partnership Deeds (there seems to be a spate of these at the moment especially for Families who have fallen out) highlighting the need for these. Don’t also forget your succession planning and making Wills – vital for Farmers and Landowners. Tax Planning is important but you shouldn’t have minimising tax as the reason for your decisions – decide what you want to do and then, after consultation, see how you can do it in the most tax efficient way.

And finally, in these times of perhaps rushing to try and make money – never be tempted to sign ANYTHING relating to Mobile Phone Masts. Just showing an interest can tie you in to something far beyond what you thought was on offer.

At HB 121 Solicitors, we have a team of experienced

If you need any advice or assistant in Rural matters, please contact us on 01562 702655 or email at info@hb121solicitors.co.uk