Tuesday, 27 October 2015

It has been a busy week...

It has been another busy week with meetings in Taunton, Bristol, Oxford, Reading, the Dairy Dinner, Carter Jonas’ National Rural Division Day and two charity events on the weekend.  

After seven days like that I often sit and ask what if anything I have learned. In this case it was the huge range of fortunes affecting the rural world. 

The woes of the dairy sector are well known to us all, although NFU President Meurig Raymond spoke at the Dairy Dinner of cautious optimism.  He alluded to the price rises in recent international milk commodity auctions giving hope that these increases will eventually feed through to the milk price being paid to our farmers.

It was also interesting to hear at a breakfast meeting that the bank managers there had not seen any significant financial problems with the majority of their farming clients.  This came as a surprise and I suspect if I sit with the same bank managers in six months, they may have a different story to tell, especially if receipt of the Basic Payments are delayed until February or March as many expect.

I then went on to Carter Jonas’ Rural Division Day where we considered the land market, among other topics, and the overwhelming sentiment was that the price of sizeable blocks of quality agricultural land remain firm.  

Demand for such land is increasingly being driven by “rollover money” as farmers and landowners who have sold land for development are looking to re-invest in agricultural land, thereby rolling over the capital benefit and avoiding the payment of Capital Gains Tax in the short term.

But also true is that the land market is extremely local and values often vary hugely across short geographic distances as can be seen here in Somerset with some “flood affected” land on the Levels being worth not much more than £3,000/acre with land in places on surrounding higher ground worth three or four times as much.  This makes the valuation of land very difficult and local knowledge increasingly important.

So, while some farmers and landowners are prospering, others are struggling and as with the land market, their fortunes can be very local – one farmer may have benefited from a good milk contract or the sale of development land while their neighbour has not.  

Sometimes this may be just good or bad luck but there are individuals with the habit of attracting good fortune. Perhaps others should learn from the business attitudes of these “lucky ones”. 

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381
E: james.stephen@carterjonas.co.uk

Friday, 23 October 2015

MPs promise warm reception for your energy views

The All Party Parliamentary Group for the Private Rented Sector is holding an inquiry into the energy efficiency of private rented housing.

From April 1, 2018, all privately rented properties will be required to have a minimum energy performance rating of E on an Energy Performance Certificate. There are some exemptions, but these will have to be registered and it’s uncertain how long they will continue.

The MPs’ inquiry follows the government’s decision not to renew the Landlord Energy Savings Allowance, originally intended to encourage landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. It was dropped because of low take up. The government has also stopped funding the Green Deal, the original vehicle for helping tenants fund energy efficiency improvements to their homes.

The MPs will consider “the impact of recent policy developments on energy efficiency improvements in the private rented sector and make recommendations about what new policies could be developed to support the sector within the government’s overall ambitions for household energy efficiency and given its efforts to ensure value for taxpayers’ money.”

Their chairman, Oliver Colville MP, says the inquiry will look to develop new ideas that support landlords in meeting their new target, save tenants money on their bills, and help improve standards.

The MPs are all those with an interest to send written submissions of no more than 1,500 words to Ed Jacobs on admin@prs-group.org.uk by Friday, October 23.

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

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Maintain your property – and meticulous records. Detail holds the key to success with Section 21

Plenty of focus has been placed on Section 21 notices, their detail, and the need to serve any notice in the correct format in order to be effective.

In fact the detail is so fine that the first draft of the official notice was erroneous and needed correction as the deadline passed for its introduction on October 1.

Possibly more important than the detail is the devilish part – keeping on top of paperwork in relation to maintenance as well as the maintenance itself.

Much of the change was brought about through the Deregulation Bill passed into law at the last possible moment before the General Election.

At the same time as the Bill received Royal Assent, the run-up to the election was also bringing a great deal of talk about retaliatory evictions. Campaigners were concerned that landlords were able to evict tenants under existing law without giving explanation and could easily do so if the tenant complained about the conditions of the property they rent.

As a result, once a tenant has made a complaint the landlord is prevented from retaliatory eviction under section 33 of the Deregulation Act 2015. This makes it imperative that landlords stay on top of their legal obligations for maintenance and that they attend to repairs before the tenant can head for the local authority’s office and seek the serving of an Improvement Notice.

There is no room for complacency in this respect and any tenant who is beginning to appear problematic for other reasons should not be given the key to remaining in their tenancy through a slack approach to maintenance.

Whenever you receive a complaint in writing from a tenant regarding the condition of the property you must within 14 days give an “adequate” response in writing. If you default, a Section 21 notice cannot be served. The legislation refers to the complaint being in writing but possibly all complaints, no matter how minor, should be clearly logged and receive a response.

The section also provides that if the tenant is unhappy with your response he can complain to the local authority who may then serve a notice requiring works to be undertaken. If such notice is served then no valid section 21 notice may be served for 6 months from the date of that notice.

All the provisions provide that Section 21 notices cannot be served after the actual complaint either by the tenant or service of the notice by the local authority. This should not affect earlier Section 21 notices or situations where the tenant has complained to the local authority but they have not inspected either by the time of the service of the notice or the court proceedings.

Private landlords have limited protection. If the tenant can be shown as the cause of the poor condition, either from positively damaging the property or omission, there may be protection but the burden of proof is on the landlord. If it can be genuinely shown the property is on the market for sale there is also an exemption.

Good processes regarding complaints handling, and a clear understanding by tenants as to who is responsible for accepting complaints, is now more important than ever in residential lettings property management.

As a reminder, the law also stipulates that at the start of the tenancy, the landlord or letting agent must give the tenant details of where and how the deposit is held and copies of both the EPC and, where applicable, the gas safety certificate and the Government’s eight page booklet “How to Rent: the checklist for renting in England” which is only available electronically and has to be printed at the landlord’s expense to be handed over each time. It is important to keep evidence of the serving of this paperwork.

Details of what must be served are contained in the The Assured Shorthold Tenancy Notices and Prescribed Requirements (England) Regulations 2015 which can be found by clicking here.

Good practice will no doubt dictate that at the time of serving the correct Section 21 notice the rest of the documentation should be re-served so that there can be no question of the tenant having received it.

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

Friday, 16 October 2015

Exchange rates for European support payments for farmers have been fixed for 2015

The Euro/pound exchange rate for European support payments for farmers has now been fixed for the 2015 year.  

Previously this conversion rate was fixed on the exchange rate of September 30 only, but this year it is set on the average exchange rate throughout the month of September.

The reason for the change is to reduce the volatility and unfairness that can be caused by using just one date to fix the conversion rate for the whole year, but despite this sensible move the value of the euro has remained subdued.  

As a result the conversion rate has been fixed at the rate of one euro = 73.14p which is the lowest farmers have received for eight years and six per cent down on last year’s rate.

However, because of the introduction of the new Basic Payment Scheme this year, we are still a long way short if understanding how this will actually translate in terms of cash in a farmer’s pocket. This is because the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) still has to calculate the actual value of “a Basic Payment Entitlement” before the conversion rate can be applied.

Here there are still a number of unknown factors which need to be sorted before the value of an entitlement can be calculated.  These unknowns include: 

1. The effect of rebalancing entitlement payments between Lowland, Severely Disadvantaged and Moorland areas
2. The change in the number of entitlements claimed compared to the previous Single Payment Scheme due to the introduction of a minimum claim size and other new rules
3. The deductions which will be made to fund the National Reserve and the Young Farmer Payment
4. The annual change to the Basic Payment Scheme National Ceiling (budget)
5. The rate of “Financial discipline” (basically budget cuts) which may be imposed by Europe

Then there is the question of when the new payments will be made.  Under the old scheme, in recent years most payments were made shortly after the payment window opened in December, and the RPA continues to sound confident about “making the majority of payments in December and the vast majority before the end of January”.  

However, many commentators are pessimistic that the RPA will achieve these timescales and are suggesting farmers should not budget to receive payments until February or March next year.  

This Christmas present will obviously put many, already cash strapped farmers under even more unwanted financial pressure in 2016. 

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381
E: james.stephen@carterjonas.co.uk

Monday, 5 October 2015

Wells Food Festival

Normally I write about current issues facing the farming industry.  However this week I want to write about the Wells Food Festival, which is now in its third year – it is free and takes place on Sunday, October 11 in the middle of the city.

The theme of this year’s event is Eat the Landscape which will be the subject of a public debate taking place on the day.  The aim is to enable visitors to recognise the connection between their food choices, wildlife and the landscape, as well as producers.  

The public needs to recognise they are contributing to the quality of the world around them by the food choices they make.   

In the last five years, an increasing number of restaurants and pubs have started displaying the provenance of their produce and naming their suppliers.  So this is important to consumers.  

The debate will explore the merits of specialist and artisan producers and the intensive farming methods that many farmers have adopted in order to survive. 

The argument runs like this.  Before the rise and rise of supermarkets, relatively short supply chains between field and fork meant many farmers had a direct connection with consumers. 

Today, the increasing scale of agricultural production, combined with complex supply chains, means that many consumers and producers have lost touch with where their food comes from. In turn this leads to producer issues being forgotten or misunderstood by consumers.  

The predominant trend towards large scale intensive farms with food processed and packaged many miles away is leading to increasing numbers of consumers no longer appreciating where their food comes from, or the importance that farming plays in the countryside supporting rural communities, wildlife and the wider landscape. 

Here in Somerset a significant number of producers have bucked this trend - 92 of whom will be displaying their wares at this year’s Wells Food Festival. By their approach to growing, processing and marketing high quality, added value products they continue a long tradition of connecting directly with their customers.  

This is now seen by many to be a diversification rather than what farmers used to habitually do before the supply chain became so complicated resulting in most farmers being forced down the “production only” route.

Those farmers who have embraced this form of diversification have not only shortened the supply chain enabling them to extract profit that would otherwise be lost to the middle men, but they often make a significant contribution to the wider rural economy, not least tourism.  

It is also important to recognise that many such producers show younger people there is a future for them in our industry although the view that every farmer could make a living in this manner needs to be balanced against the economic reality of producing enough food to feed an ever expanding UK and world population.

Anyhow, whatever your view on this debate there will be sure to be some amazing local food on offer so why not just come along and enjoy yourself.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381
E: james.stephen@carterjonas.co.uk

Friday, 2 October 2015

Keeping it real about AI

So much focus in the news on artificial intelligence is far from droning on, believes Will Mooney, Carter Jonas partner and head of commercial in the eastern region

It is incumbent upon any professional adviser to have an understanding of their clients’ business. Those with clients in the technology sector, acknowledge that the speed of change means they are always going to be learning something new. 

The latest technology to intrigue me is Artificial Intelligence (AI).Like many, I do get the basic concept but what’s more tricky is understanding its wordly application and how, in the not too distant future, this might affect my working, domestic and social world.

I could say that understanding AI is above my pay grade, so to speak, but perhaps, one day, an AI-primed robot my be on my pay grade instead of me. Time will tell. But surely all of us with enquiring minds, operating on any pay grade, must be wondering about the the impact that AI is having -  and will have -  on the working world within our life times.

Like most technological developments, AI and its attendent world of robotics once sat in a comfortable package with drone technology in having their roots in governments’ defence spending before coming in to civil use.  As did the first usable prototype of the Internet and look how far down business civvy street that had travelled from the mid-1960s by the mid-1990s.

With drone-eye views of large properties, sites and country estates fast becoming the ‘must-have’ tool in the property agents’ marketing armoury, I can’t help but wonder what mundane but essential jobs in my industry could be happily handed over to an office robot.

It’s been suggested that in the legal world, robots could take on the job of legal executives in checking all is in order on page after page or screen after screen of contracts and agreements.  Whither the legal exec then?

The consensus appears to be that it is jobs in the creative industries which are at least threat from being undermined by AI technology. However, do bear in mind that the people relaying this message are in the media – one of those creative industries.

Far from being a threat to jobs, there are those involved in the world of AI who see their work as freeing up people to do what humans really are good at: being creative and, well, being human. Taking this line, it’s easy to follow the argument that industrialisation has shackled us humans and made machines and drones of us. We do more than be.

In a delicious and ironic twist, perhaps the robots we make and the intelligence we equip them with will free us up to re-discover what the essence of being human is?  This latter point was made with alacrity in a recent interview by Eric Horvitz who is the Director of Microsoft Research’s Redmond laboratory in Seattle.  

The more cynical members of the human race than this esteemed scientist and scholar can’t help but wonder if discovering the essence of our species isn’t a more threatening thought than that of having our jobs done by robots...

It may be that, one day, my job can and will be done by a robot.  But no matter how advanced its intelligence develops to replicate or exceed my own, I do wonder if it will ever share a gut instinct about a deal or the visceral delight and sense of achievement when the deal is sealed.  There’s definitely nothing artificial about those feelings.

Will Mooney MRICS

Commercial, Cambridge