Policy Paper – Rural

Jeremy Blackburn

Head of UK Policy (RICS)

The RICS Rural Policy Paper recommends introducing a number of key measures to safeguard and maintain soil quality, to better understand the capability of land despite greater policy demands, to improve access to farming and increase the amount of managed woodland, to devolve powers to our market towns not just our cities and to implement the new Electronic Communications Code.

Themes which dominate rural discussions

Our rural property professionals are engaged in all aspects of land, forestry and property management in rural areas managing a hugely diverse asset base. Our professionals are responsible for the management and amelioration, whether directly or indirectly, of the majority of the built and natural asset base in rural England.

Familiar themes dominate discussions in the rural and agriculture sectors, where the issue of competing narratives in food and farming remains. How can we produce more and simultaneously look after the environment? Should we look to science or nature for improved soils and nutrition? Would UK agriculture be better in or out of Europe? How should we prioritise competing land use demands? What can we realistically do about adapting to and mitigating climate change?

These themes emerged during our policy consultation with rural property professionals, employed in the public, private and third sectors. Boiling these wide ranging discussions though, members focused on the multi-functionality of land and the need to resolve competing land uses.

Member concerns centred around three main themes:

  • Soil Management
  • Natural Resource Management
  • Productivity

We view our recommendations through the prism of these themes:

  • Property in the rural economy
  • Land industries: farming, forestry and tourism
  • Energy: production and use
  • Natural capital markets

Flooding, Land and Housing

The month ahead of the paper’s launch at the Oxford Farming Conference couldn’t have shown better why we developed the paper. The extreme weather and flooding across Northern England in December 2015 emphasised the need for a strategic approach from government that wasn’t solely focused on flood defence and flood insurance – the end of the process.

We need to adopt an Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) approach to flood management through the entire catchment to help mitigate flooding and where possible protect and enhance good agricultural land.

Practical work in the Uplands which can complement sustainable hill farming such as tree planting and measures to slow water has been shown to be successful in the prevention of flooding downstream and such work should be incentivised by agri-environment schemes and taxation incentives.

We need government and agencies to make it easier for farmers repairing flood damage to land, walls and fences, and to remove rubbish and debris, which is a threat to livestock welfare.  In the longer term, we need more resilient channels and bridges able to cope with rapid run-off.

Demanding more from our land

The experience with the flooding of land, whether Cumbria in 2015 or the Somerset Levels in 2014, highlight a much wider issue about what our land is used for. How land is managed and what it produces is at the heart of the economy and society.

We are making increasing demands on this land, requiring it do more for us resulting in more complex decision making through land use planning. The ability of land to deliver more than just its agricultural productive potential and its ability to deliver multiple benefits simultaneously adds to its value and its versatility.

Formerly we assessed land solely through its productive capacity, whether food, timber, fuel or other goods, we now look at it in terms of wildlife, landscape, air, water and soil fertility as well. Further, we view its adaptability to produce not just more public goods, but whether it increases tourism, can produce energy, become a flood defence, sequester carbon or be developed for housing.

Realising markets

Realising markets in eco-system services could lead to a greater rise in environmental quality than traditional agri-environment subsidy has managed and through recognising the production of public goods, could unleash new growth in rural areas. Implementing recommendations from the Eco-systems Market taskforce tailed off at the end of the Coalition government, but the momentum on these should not be lost.

None of this will be realised without having housing for a rural workforce. But affordable rural housing is fast becoming a thing of the past. There is a reported 76 per cent shortfall in rural affordable housing. If our rural towns and villages are to thrive, we need to take action to ensure that workers are available to drive local economies. Without becoming rose-tinted, there are elements to the philanthropic approach to estate management that could benefit future generations of workers and apprentices.

There are some countryside communities where the average cost of a house can outstrip average annual wages 11 times over. We would like to see local authorities work sympathetically with estate owners to encourage the release of land for eight or more affordable houses, based on long leaseholds, which would allow estates to retain long term interests.

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