Warning of affordable rural homes time-bomb as retirement moves up farming agenda

Just eight per cent of housing in rural areas can be classed as affordable, compared to 20 per cent of urban housing, according to The Princes Countryside Fund. Picture: University College of Estate Management/Getty Images.
Just eight per cent of housing in rural areas can be classed as affordable, compared to 20 per cent of urban housing, according to The Princes Countryside Fund. Picture: University College of Estate Management/Getty Images.

A much-needed supply of affordable housing in the countryside needs to be unlocked as farming teeters on the brink of an era of unprecedented change, experts have warned in a new report.

Greater interest in retirement is expected from existing generations of farmers “over and above the normal cycle of family life” during the next decade, they said, as a reduction in state support impacts on income, among other factors.

Ashley Wheaton, principal of University College of Estate Management.

Ashley Wheaton, principal of University College of Estate Management.

Just eight per cent of housing in rural areas can be classed as “affordable”, compared to 20 per cent of urban housing, according to The Prince’s Countryside Fund, and there is no single “silver bullet” to providing more affordable housing for retiring farmers, the new report states.

Policy makers and local decision makers are urged to come up with “innovative” new ways of solving the problem, and the report highlights two policies that are credited with having had positive impacts outside of England.

In Wales, a new policy is supporting planning permission for a second dwelling on a farm that “facilitates generational change” in the farm’s management, while in the Republic of Ireland, income tax relief on the “arms’ length” letting of farmland for terms of five years or more has seen up to 8,500 farmers retire or withdraw from farming and subsequently let out their land.

“There is no doubt that the issue of retirement housing for farmers is of great, and increasing, importance,” writes David Fursdon, chairman of Beeswax Dyson Farming and one of the contributors to the Retirement Housing for Farmers in the UK report.

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The farmer, who authored the 2013 Future of Farming review on new entrants into agriculture, suggested that allowing farmers to retire was essential to secure the next generation of farmers.

“One of the biggest concerns in all discussions about the future of agriculture in the UK is attracting good entrepreneurial talent into the industry,” Mr Fursdon writes.

“With a finite amount of land and a decreasing number of farms through amalgamation, this means that farmers of retirement age need to actually retire for there to be opportunities for these new young entrepreneurs.

“At present, this progression has not been happening.

“There is recognition,however, that with the increased focus on the market and the change in support payments as we leave the EU, there will be pressure on farmers of retirement age, which might lead to a greater willingness on their part to cede the running of their businesses to the younger generation. For this to happen, the solutions need to be acceptable to the farming families concerned.”

He said those involved in developing and implementing policy on retirement housing for farmers need to ensure the opportunities are clearly understood by farmers; that there is a “joined up” approach to dealing with the problem; that advisers and mentors are aware of the opportunities, and that farmers take the opportunity of changing support systems to retire and hand over their business to the next generation.

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According to Ashley Wheaton, principal of University College of Estate Management, one of the organisations behind the new report, said: “Issues with the provision of housing can provide significant obstacles to those looking to retire. Encouraging a fresh perspective that retirement can be both desirable and feasible requires a range of enabling measures, and consequent structural change.

“Farmers will need to be supported by flexible advice and facilitation, taking into account differing access to capital, sites and income, as well as tenure and other factors.”

The Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (CAAV), The Prince’s Countryside Fund, Royal Agricultural University and Northumbrian Water Group, with support from a steering group that includes the Addington Fund, also contributed to the report.

Jeremy Moody, the CAAV’s secretary, said an increased supply of retirement housing for farmers relies on encouraging “imaginative practice” and “innovative solutions” from local planning authorities, as well as families giving consideration to their futures.

Claire Saunders, director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund, said it was “difficult” to gauge the likely scale of retirements in farming as a result of proposed agricultural policy changes.

“None of us are quite sure at the moment but I do think whatever numbers we are looking at, we need to be there to support farmers as much as we can,” she said.

“It is about looking at ways of giving them options to choose their futures rather than the situation being thrust upon them.”

Business support

There is still time for families running small livestock farms in Yorkshire to join a dedicated farm business advice project being run by The Prince’s Countryside Fund.

Claire Saunders, director of the charity, said: “Our Farm Resilience Programme involves up to 20 farming families in different regions each year and there is one happening in Skipton at the moment.

“We have had the welcome meeting but if there are any farmers out there, small livestock farms particularly, who want to get back in control of their business, please contact us quickly.”

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