Thursday, 30 July 2015

Warm-hearted tenants are a better bet

It’s not long until changes come into effect regarding the energy efficiency of let properties.

From April next year, tenants will have the right to ask their landlords to approve energy efficiency measures under the Green Deal and while this may seem attractive the scheme has its drawbacks, not least that the Government has just decided to stop funding the Green Deal Finance Company.

Green Deal improvements were funded by repayments through the energy bills applicable to the property. If the benefits of the improvement outweighed the cost of making them then they suited Green Deal requirements.

But it was always much better to make these improvements yourself as an investment in your let property rather than use the Green Deal scheme which may have restricted which energy companies tenants could use in the future as not all providers were part of the scheme. While this may seem insignificant, consumers are growing more energy aware and may have resented having their opportunities to switch curtailed, particularly as a measure in the recent Budget was for switching to be made possible within 24 hours.

At Carter Jonas, approximately seven per cent of our lettings properties fall into EPC Bands F and G, possibly limiting their lettings potential. Landlords therefore need to start paying attention to the need to upgrade. It’s true that exemptions from the new rules will apply and all listed homes fall outside the EPC requirement but it’s never a good idea to rely on a loophole that can subsequently close.

My recommendation is that where tenants ask to have an energy urvey done you allow it to go ahead but then consider whether or not it’s to your advantage to implement the improvements yourself so you retain control. It may also be that the work can be completed at lower cost than any Green Deal scheme contractor may have offered and there was always the right to refuse improvements that were not cost effective.

Where listed buildings are concerned, it’s worth bearing in mind that the feature that has led to the listing may not actually be within the living space.

Garden walls and dovecots are among the many reasons a property can be listed and the doves are less likely to be worried about the energy-saving potential than the tenants!

If this affects you, then see how you can improve your property’s energy performance independent of anything a tenant may want to do. The appeal of living in a listed building is sufficient for many people to sign a tenancy agreement without question.

But how much better is it if your tenant not only feels warm-hearted towards the building because of its listing but also is actually physically warmed by its energy-saving features?

Lisa Simon, 
Partner Head of Residential Lettings
T: 020 7518 3234 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Inclosure Consolidation Act 1801

A Court of Appeal case is leaving landowners very worried that hundreds of new public rights of way may be created as a consequence of ancient legislation dating back more than 200 years.

The appeal turns on the interpretation of the Inclosure Consolidation Act 1801 and whether the enclosure commissioner was empowered to create public bridleways, as opposed to private bridleways in the Wiltshire parish of Crudwell.

Enclosure was the process by which traditional communal arable farming in open fields was abolished and land was enclosed for the use of a single owner, the idea being that the land would be farmed more efficiently, thereby increasing production. 

For Crudwell the enclosure commissioner made the enclosure award in 1841 when he was purported to make one 15-foot wide a public "bridle road" and one 10-foot wide public "bridle path" across some arable land which is now owned by a farmer called Jonathan Blanch.

John Andrews, a local footpath secretary with the Ramblers Association, has tried for 22 years to reopen these two bridleways in Crudwell after finding them marked on the original enclosure map. Wiltshire Council refused to restore them to the official modern map of rights of way and a Government inspector upheld this decision.

However in the appeal, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, decided that they had both been wrong and that the two paths were legally rights of way. 

Lord Dyson commented: “There are believed to be between 500 and 1,000 cases in England and Wales where public footpaths and bridleways set out and appointed by commissioners are not currently recorded in the relevant definitive maps,”

Mr Andrews of the Ramblers Association was delighted by the ruling but Mr Blanch, the farmer described it as “dire”.

However, not only Mr Blanch will be concerned about the consequences of this ruling. There will be many unsuspecting landowners out there who may be vulnerable to similar claims being made on their land for public rights of way that may not have been used in living memory.

You have to question whether the law has struck the correct balance between the rights of the landowner and those of the wider public.  

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Distant mandarins of DEFRA

The distant mandarins of DEFRA are building a reputation for incompetence.

The flagship Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) opened for applications on July 1, but it came as no surprise to farmers who have endured the introduction of the new Basic Payment Scheme that DEFRA failed to publish the full terms and conditions of the scheme, leaving potential applicants in limbo.

The CSS replaces the existing Entry Level and Higher Level Environmental Stewardship schemes which have closed to new entrants. However, there is now less money available so the new scheme will be competitive, unlike its predecessors.

Statements of Priorities have been drawn up that cover all of England and applicants to the scheme need to choose options and capital items that meet the environmental priorities for their geographical area. As the scheme is competitive, applications are scored and agreements offered on the basis of meeting the environmental priorities applicable to the area where the applicant’s land is located.

The CSS comprises three core elements:

• Mid Tier – this will be open to any farmer to make an application and if successful they will be offered a five-year agreement

• Higher Tier – this is predominantly an invitation led application process for “environmentally significant sites” where more complex management is required. Again these agreements are likely to be for five years

• Capital Grants – these are one to two year grants which focussed on work being carried out on field boundaries, projects leading to water quality improvement, small scale woodland creation, etc.

Natural England had already identified a number of potential applicants for the Higher Tier scheme and they were invited to complete an “expression of interest” form online by June 30, but that date slipped with the deadline put back to July 15.

With this sort of incompetence surrounding the new flagship environmental scheme I wonder whether the September 30 deadline for submission of applications will also have to be postponed if the terms and conditions of the scheme are not published very soon.

This lack of clarity has prompted the NFU to warn farmers and other potential applicants against formally committing to the CSS before they know just what they are signing up to.

So yet again we are witnessing the chaotic introduction of a new EU-funded scheme where high level decisions have been made which seem almost impossible to implement on the ground within the timescales set by Whitehall mandarins.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Friday, 17 July 2015

Somerset sheep rustling

As if it’s not bad enough that lamb prices have dropped to a five year low, farmers across Somerset are now having to cope with the threat of sheep rustling.

Avon and Somerset Police report that around 480 lambs, ewes and rams were stolen between May 12 and June 18 in the county. It is believed the sheep are either sold on or slaughtered.

The raids have cost some farmers £10,000 or more, with one overnight theft of 150 sheep from a field in Langport estimated at £30,000. The worst affected areas include Yeovil, Ilchester, Stoke sub Hamdon and East Huntspill but farmers further afield are naturally concerned about this growing threat.

Sergeant Stuart Williams of Avon and Somerset Police Rural Crime team said: "Anyone involved in this crime, whether they are buying animals they know are stolen or their meat, is helping destroy honest businesses and lining the pockets of criminals.

"All the thefts are being investigated, and our units are stopping and checking vehicles capable of carrying livestock day and night to check tags and paperwork."

One victim, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "It's sickening what these mindless thieves do. The sheep have probably suffered in transit and not been killed humanely."

All sheep are tagged and paperwork must be put in place if they are to be moved off a holding. So if the police find sheep being moved without the appropriate documentation it should be easy to establish that something is awry.

However, understanding the rules regarding ear tagging and movement restrictions is complicated and it is reassuring that the police take this matter seriously.

In June about 60 officers from Avon and Somerset and neighbouring forces in Devon and Cornwall met for a focus on rural crime and were instructed on livestock registration, ear-tagging, movement regulations and what to look for if those rules are being broken.

Sgt Stuart Williams said the training day was “invaluable for making sure that officers covering rural areas have the knowledge to know what to look for when investigating farm and countryside crime.”

Farmers and members of the public who see anything suspicious should immediately report it to the police. They are taking rural crime seriously.  

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Ash Dieback disease is starting to take hold

Driving around the Somerset countryside I am seeing increasing numbers of sickly looking ash trees with weak foliage growth and dead branches appearing in the canopy.

I fear this is a sign that the deadly Ash Dieback disease or Chalara fraxinea is beginning to take hold. Chalara is a fungus spread by wind borne spores and so its control is impossible.

Ash trees suffering from the infection have been found widely across Europe since trees were first reported dying in large numbers in Poland in 1992. It was not until February 2012 that it was first confirmed in the UK when it was found in a consignment of infected trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire.

In October 2012, scientists from the Food & Environment Research Agency confirmed a small number of cases in Norfolk and Suffolk in ash trees in the wider natural environment, which did not appear to have any association with recently supplied nursery stock.

Further finds in trees in the wider environment have since been confirmed in a number of places, mostly in the east and south-east of England. In May 2013 the first wider-environment case was found in south-west Wales.

Having had suspicions that the disease may now be in Somerset I looked at the Forestry Commission website where there is an interactive map and sure enough I found the disease has now been discovered in the three 10km grid squares around my home patch near Wells.

So my worst fears may well be correct because if our ash trees become affected in the same manner as those on the continent there is likely to be a mortality rate of well over 90 per cent. This will have a devastating effect on our landscape as the ash is one of the commonest woodland and hedgerow tree species.

So, before any farmers vote to get out of Europe because of all the hassle associated with regulations, they need to ask themselves some serious questions.

It seems there is little we can do other than hope that some resistant genetic strains may develop. This is a possibility because the ash does reproduce prolifically, to the extent that it has in places almost been considered a weed species.

Lets hope that within this genetic diversity some saplings will survive to breeding age and re-populate our woodlands in due course.

However, in the meantime this is a timely reminder of the vulnerability of our tree species in particular, which being long lived and slow growing organisms can be devastated by the introduction of a new disease such as Chalara.

Sadly these diseases usually come from some form of imported tree or timber product and government need to take biosecurity measures far more seriously.  

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Friday, 3 July 2015

The business of America is our business

As the race for the White House in 2016 begins in earnest this summer with big hitting Republican and Democrat candidates lining up for their party’s nominations, Will Mooney, Carter Jonas partner and head of commercial in the eastern region, takes his cue from a past-President

In quoting the 30th President of the United State of America, it must be acknowleged that what Calvin Coolidge actually said in a 1925 speech was, “the chief business of the American people is business”. In being misquoted for the best part of a hundred years, the essence of what he said has remained true in characterising the clout with which the USA has dominated global relations, particularly those with Europe, for the past century.

Even when positions of international isolation and economic protectionism were taken by successive presidents after 1919, there were US treaties which looked to its Pacific and Central America interests and negotiations which resulted in several formal ‘payment plans’ so Europe could begin to settle its World War One debts.

Edging towards the Second World War in the late 1930s, saw Franklin Roosevelt attempting to move Congress towards an understanding of ‘collective security’. By September 1940, it authorised the spending of $10.5 billion on arming the nation and, in the first quarter of 1941, the Lend Lease Bill was enacted which enabled Britain’s continued participation in the war. On 07 December that year, Pearl Harbour was bombed and isolationism was no longer an option.

The last repayment on the Lend Lease agreement was £45 million pounds and was made under the Blair government in 2006. Tony Blair wasn’t born until 1953.

When that post-1945 period of European history could still be called ‘modern’, any ‘O’ level scholar of the subject - and of the day - would be able to reel-off successive speeches and policies of the period in which the United States’ willingness and ability to be at the centre of things was crucial.

No longer the Prime Minister when he made it, Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech of March 1946 was made in Missouri in the presence of President Truman. In September that year, albeit in Zurich, Churchill referenced the creation of a ‘United States of Europe’.

NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – is an alliance which stands to this day with considerably more member countries than its original set of north western European nations, the USA and Canada when the Treaty was signed in 1949.

Foreign policy wise for decades post-1945, ‘the domino theory’ prevailed in those countries who did not want others or themselves to succumb to European communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union and the influence of Chinese communism across Indo-China. It was President Eisenhower who gave voice to this as the policy driver in a landmark speech in 1954.

Crucial to backing up any policy position in any stage of history is economic might and, for the USA in the 20th Century, this was built on the supremacy of its industrial and business wealth. The £13 billion dollars’ worth of aid - worth circa £120 billion in modern times – made available by the USA in form of the 1948 Marshall Plan saw many European countries avail themselves of it in re-building and modernising after the Second World War.

As to what our ‘O’ level selves might have made of where we are now? Well, in writing an essay about the nature of the USA’s influence on the European and wider world stage in the first decades of the 21st Century, we would have to consider the importance of trade and aid and could argue the supremacy of the former.

Will Mooney MRICS

Commercial, Cambridge

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Milk prices... why so low?

I was sad to learn that Mark Oliver, the chairman of the NFU’s South West dairy board has announced he is selling his herd and quitting agriculture.

Mr Oliver explained he could not see a future in the industry having seen his milk price drop from 33-34 pence per litre a year ago to 25 pence today with further cuts in prospect.

I suspect Mr Oliver will not be alone in making this decision in the coming months. With milk currently trading on the spot market at prices as low as 12 pence per litre, the future does not look great except for those on the most lucrative supermarket contracts where the annual average milk price is still in excess of 30 pence per litre.

The current crisis in the dairy sector is accentuating the huge breadth of performance in the industry. For example, the Milk Price League Table for April published by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) shows the top annual milk price is offered under the Muller Wiseman Dairies Tesco contract at 31.88 pence per litre while the lowest price under the First Milk Liquid A contract at 19.56 pence per litre.

Similarly there is a huge gap in performance between the best and the worst farms. Again figures published by AHDB show the full economic cost of production for the top 25 per cent of farmers is around 26.5 pence per litre with the bottom 25 per cent being around 36.2 pence.

Therefore, even on the very best milk contract, the worst performing dairy farmers will be losing more than four pence per litre and if they were on the worst contract they would be losing nearly 17 pence on every litre of milk they produce. There can be no long term future for such businesses.

In contrast farmers in the top 25 per cent will still be making money on the best milk contracts, although in most cases even these farmers will struggle to break even.

So, more than ever, dairy farmers need to keep a very close eye on their production costs and where possible get on to the best milk supply contracts. But sadly there will be no future for the bottom 25 per cent of dairy farmers unless they can seriously improve their technical performance.  

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381