Monday, 23 September 2013

Campaign Launched to Prevent Future Flooding

The flooding of 2012 may be a distant memory for some but it still haunts many farmers and landowners on the Somerset Levels who were so badly affected; finding their land immersed deep under water for months on end.

Farmers maintain the problem has been caused primarily by the Environment Agency failing to dredge the rivers. It is estimated this has reduced the carrying capacity of some of the major rivers such as the Parrett by as much as 40% which has resulted in flooding.

As a consequence a campaign has been launched to raise £4m to prevent future flooding on the levels. Michael Eavis launched the campaign last week at Burrowbridge, near the site of some of the worst flooding which lead to the closure of the A361 to Taunton for many weeks during wettest periods of 2012 and early 2013.

Michael Eavis explained, "They used to have half a dozen drag lines that would be going throughout the winter. It should be so simple to introduce a system that works but it's all been an absolute shambles. Unfortunately the maintenance of the Levels has been an example of central government interference, when it should have been left to the people who know what they are doing. One of the benefits of dredging is that you build up the banks at the same time so it's a double whammy effect."

The campaign, which has been organised by the Royal Bath and West of England Society, is aimed at raising the funds required to start dredging works as soon as possible. Edwin White, from Easton near Wells, speaking in behalf of the Society said, "This situation has been allowed to develop over the last 10 or 15 years and now it's reached a head with heavy rains of 2011 and 2012.”

To date the Environment Agency has pledged £300,000 towards the fund which seems to be tacit acceptance that dredging will help the problem. This is despite the fact they maintain dredging is not the long term solution although I am not clear what they think is the solution unless they consider allowing the levels to flood is acceptable.

The Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee and Somerset County Council have also pledged the same amount as the Environment Agency. Thus the fund has been pump primed with some significant sums of public money but is appears to me that there is still a very long way to go. Whether there is an appetite from individuals and the private sector more widely to make the significant donations which will be required to hit the target is in my mind open to question.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Monday, 16 September 2013

Dairy Farmers Feeling Frustrated

Many dairy farmers are yet again feeling frustrated that they do not seem to be receiving a fair share of the profit which is being generated from the milk they produce as a consequence of the high world market prices for milk products.

As a result “Farmers for action” (FFA) held a blockade on 5th September at the Morrisons supermarket distribution centre near the Bridgwater junction on the M5. About 100 farmers were involved and FFA chairman, David Handley handed over a letter addressed to Morrisons’ chief executive explaining why the farmers felt the need to act.

Mr Handley explained that, "The reason that farming families had turned up was very simple; most dairy farmers over the past three months have seen no milk price increases despite the fact that global markets are at an all time high. Last year, it was agreed by all parties in the dairy chain that dairy farmers who have to take the lows in the market place should also benefit from the highs."

FFA is demanding that major processors and supermarkets work together to raise the milk price to a minimum of 33p/litre, but preferably 35p/litre across the board so farmers can make a "bit of profit". FFA estimate the average price being paid to farmers for their milk is 31p/litre but some are receiving as little as 27-28p/litre at which level they will be making significant losses.

A Morrisons spokesman said: "We buy the milk sold in our stores directly from a processor, who sets the price received by the farmer for each litre they produce. The increases we have made in the amount we pay to processors since last summer have resulted in a rise of more than 4p/litre for farmers, bringing milk prices to their highest level in recent years."

This is indeed true but even at these high prices farmers are only receiving a milk price which is equivalent to that which they were receiving in 1992 if inflation is taken in to account. I think it is generally agreed by independent analysts that the increase in world commodity prices has not been properly reflected in the price farmers are receiving, but there is disagreement as to how best a fair increase can be achieved.

The NFU for example is not supporting the protests because they think the matter is best dealt with by negotiation between processors, supermarkets and farmers. As far as I can see, one of the difficulties is that because there are so many different contracts offered by the various milk purchasers, it is difficult to get to the bottom of what is really happening. For instance Dairy Crest announced last week that its “formula contract “price is set to increase by 0.153p/litre to 32.082p/litre from 1 October which will be 0.693p/litre ahead of their standard liquid milk price.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Forward Guidance and its Feel Better Factor

Compass pointing straight ahead, Will Mooney, Carter Jonas partner and head of its commercial agency and professional services in the eastern region, reckons UK plc is more than ready to see where a new road map will take us.

With his dashing good looks which, I am reliably informed by one who should know, can cause a collective Twitter swoon when he’s on the television, the new Governor of the Bank of England appears to have become the poster- boy and superstar of central banking over the summer, while many of his peers will have been sunning themselves on the beaches instead of sweating the statistics.

One month on from taking over from Lord King on 01 July and by 07 August Mark Carney produced and presented a “forward guidance” strategy. As a concept it instantly captured the attention and imagination of the media and business commentators.

The clarity that the simplicity of linking the Bank’s base interest rate with inflation and unemployment targets has, generally, been welcomed by operational business interests too.

The unemployment rate is currently 7.8 percent with the base rate at an historically low rate of 0.5 percent – a level unchanged since March 2009.

Mr Carney and his monetary policy committee cohorts have done much to allay fears that recent, more positive economic data would be the harbinger of an interest rate hike. However, he denied that that 7 percent unemployment or below was a target and preferred to pitch it as a figure at which point the Bank would only consider raising the base rate.

Should the inflation rise to above 2.5 percent at any point in the medium term and his forward guidance states that 7 percent or below unemployment figure is forfeit with 2.5 percent inflation being the more important figure influencing consideration of a possible interest rate rise.

Quantitative Easing (QE) continues until the inflation and/or unemployment thresholds are reached too.

Having such forward guidance about interest rate policies puts the Bank of England on a par with the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank who, apparently, already have published policies on such matters too. Now we have these too.

It is really important that we don’t lose sight that such low interest rates are not the norm and it is inevitable that they will rise. For some, that will come as a shock.

Picture this: a day in September when the base interest rate rises so quickly in succession from 10 percent to 12 to 15 percent within a matter of hours. That day happened nearly 21 years ago. That day, the 16 September 1992, was ‘Black Wednesday’ and has become the stuff of historical study for economics students and ancient history to a new generation of borrowers.

There was a time when base rates were always in double figures. But have never been above 5 percent since spring 2008. And we all know what happened that autumn.

Yet I shouldn’t be churlish. While ‘Forward Guidance’ is not an economic regime in itself and more of a tactic for abnormal times to get us back to a more normal regime. We’ve had to live what, some years ago, was characterised as the ‘new normal’ for long enough and many of us have had quite enough of it.

Whether a regime or a tactic to give us a road map to sustained recovery remains to be seen but I, for one, am more than happy that Governor Carney’s pronouncement has been part of a summer of positive data which makes it feel as if we’re pointing in the right direction. At last.

Will Mooney MRICS

Commercial, Cambridge

Monday, 9 September 2013

Harvest is Nearly Over

Harvest is nearly over and in general, although yields have not been astounding, the weather has been kind for once. It has probably been the least interrupted harvest for 5 or 6 years which is a welcome relief to everyone after the series of wet summers we have experienced in recent years which culminated in the disaster that was 2012.

The impact of last year’s weather has certainly affected this year’s yields with some “winter” crops which were established in wet conditions last autumn/winter really struggling but for those who held their nerve and planted crops this spring, these have performed reasonably well. The hot dry spell in June/July did result in some crops dying off prematurely which was particularly noticeable in beans and some cereals on lighter land.

However, in general it has been a positive story and many farmers have already been able to sow next year’s oilseed rape which needs to be in the ground before the end of August in order to produce a reasonable crop next year. Indeed as we move in to the transition period between the end of harvest and the start of cultivations for next year’s crop many farmers will be secretly hoping for a little rain so as to help with creating a seed bed and for the establishment of the next crop.

But we only want rain in moderation because there is a lot more work to be done before the winter is upon us. For example livestock farmers will be hoping that the weather is not too wet as many still want to take a late cut of grass silage and all the maize is still to be harvested. Last year was so wet that some maize crops were never harvested and that which was harvested was generally very poor.

Thankfully this year looks very different, with some good maize crops around and fingers crossed, if the weather does not deteriorate too much there is a reasonable chance of harvesting it towards the end of this month or the start of next. This would be a great boon to livestock farmers who should have a good store of winter forage in stock this winter which should help support milk production and the fattening of beef cattle.

So all in all, this summer’s weather has been a merciful relief to all farmers in the area; cattle have generally thrived out at pasture, crops have grown reasonably well, harvest has been straightforward and the establishment of next year’s crops is well underway – what a difference a year makes.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Monday, 2 September 2013

Culling of Badgers

As the cull of badgers has recently started in West Somerset and is due to start shortly in Gloucestershire, I feel I cannot let this moment pass without comment. This is obviously a highly controversial and divisive subject but it is also complicated and all aspects of the debate cannot easily be understood via short articles such as this. However, I will try to distil some of the information which I think is particularly pertinent.

First, it is quite clear that the policy of trying to control the spread of TB in cattle is not working. In 1986 only 235 cattle tested positive in Great Britain for TB but by 2010 28,541 cattle tested positive.

It is also important to note that in 1992 the Protection of Badgers Act was introduced which provided legal protection for badgers. As a result the badger population has increased dramatically because the badger has no natural predator. It is estimated that between 1988 and 1997 the badger population increased by 77% and has since increased further to 288,000 in 2005. It is thought the badger population continues to increase and having seen one this summer on the Liberty in Wells and two badgers killed on New Street, I can believe this is true.

It is also not in dispute that Badgers can transmit bovine TB to cattle and despite ever increasing levels of bio-security to reduce the impact of cattle to cattle transmission of TB and a regular programme of cattle testing and slaughter of infected animals, the disease continues to spread in cattle. The implication of this is that cattle herds are in many cases being re-infected from another source, the most likely of which is the badger population.

So what are the options that could be deployed alongside the continuing bio-security measures? I think there are three:

• Vaccination of cattle

• Vaccination of Badgers

• Culling of Badgers

My thoughts on these are as follows:

Vaccination of cattle is currently forbidden under EU legislation. Deploying a vaccine in the face of the European ban could lead to a ban on the trade of live cattle, meat and dairy products with other EU countries. In 2011, these trades amounted to £496,000, £490m and £1.2bn respectively. It is likely that countries outside of the European Union would follow the EU's lead. To change the legislation a significant amount of work will be required proving the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine and developing an effective test to distinguish between infected and vaccinated animals. We are currently many years away from achieving this although if successful, cattle vaccination would become an important element to help control TB in cattle but it would not be a comprehensive solution because the vaccine will not create anywhere near 100% immunity in vaccinated animals.

Vaccination of Badgers is another possibility and trials with an injectable vaccine are underway in Wales for example. However, the cost of doing this on a large scale and the need to vaccinate every year makes this unlikely to be a cost effective or practical solution country wide but it could be used to vaccinate badgers in target areas which could have a role to play in places. If an oral vaccine could be developed this would make it much easier and cheaper to administer a vaccine on a large scale but at present such a vaccine is not available.

Culling badgers is the most controversial proposal. Professor Bourne, who was in charge of the trial badger culls which took place early this century concluded that badger culling did reduce the disease in cattle but also spread the disease at margins of the cull area due to perturbation of badger social groups. As a result he concluded that the badger culling was not cost effective.

Since then Bourne’s conclusions have been open to debate but what has become clear is that continuing to only implement bio-security measures is not cost effective either. There is also a significant body of evidence from abroad that a disease such as TB, where a wildlife reservoir is an important source of re-infection, cannot be successfully brought under control without addressing the problem in the wildlife reservoir also.

Thus it seems to me that culling badgers widely will become an unfortunate but necessary means of bringing this costly disease under control. Culling badgers will only be one aspect of the control measures which will need to be put in place – continued testing and slaughter of cattle, on farm bio-security measures, possible targeted vaccination of badgers and in time the vaccination of cattle are all likely to play a role but there is a long road ahead before the incidence of TB in both cattle and badgers can be brought under control.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381