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Finding a way through a landscape of uncertainty

Tom Warde-Aldam explores strategies for survival in a fast-changing world.

Commentators from all sides are predicting fundamental change in the rural sector, and landowners frequently ask us what they should be doing in the current landscape of uncertainty. 

So can the status quo survive the current range of issues we all face? Clearly not entirely. There is no room for complacency, but economic momentum continues, arguably masking many immediate concerns. 

Most of the current uncertainty arises from the ongoing Brexit morass, but other wider questions highlight fundamental changes in attitudes, particularly towards environmental concerns. Extreme weather events help to emphasise questions about sustainability and how to achieve a zero-carbon economy. 

These issues in turn provide a platform for more focused attacks on existing business assumptions.  Witness the current growing antipathy to red meat and animal products generally. Social media has helped to accelerate the growth of a multiplicity of single issue pressure groups. 

Seemingly secure markets are now threatened by changes not only to international tariffs, but also by more fundamental market shifts. What do these industries need to do? They must be proactive and modify their marketing pitch, and hopefully they will, but any pushback will not happen overnight. 

A three-year preoccupation with Europe has caused a major backlog in Government policy. In England we have outline proposals for BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) subsidy change, but no apparent progress on its ELMS (Environmental Land Management System) replacement. There have been consultations on tax “simplification” and tenancy reform, all of which could undermine fundamental givens. 

In the background to this, the current agri-environment scheme process and general payment regime has become widely discredited. In the face of widespread concern, Government ministers promise “full support” for what may be beleaguered sectors of the agricultural industry, but as yet, there is no detail on this, nor confidence that it can be delivered quickly and efficiently. There must also be an underlying concern that agriculture may simply be a minor pawn in a much bigger trade war. 

How should we be reacting to all of these threats? As ever, there is no magic wand. Everyone’s circumstances are unique. Those in the best position to survive and prosper will have a clear grasp of their current circumstances and will be able to anticipate problems and react quicker and more positively. Where there is adversity there will inevitably be opportunity. 

Landowners need to be prepared to embrace positive and radical thinking. For the time being, they will still own the same resources, but these may need to be deployed into different markets.

Tradition may not be the best byword. Poor agricultural land may need to be turned into woodland. Expensive sporting lodges, if devoid of quarry, may need to attract a new clientele more interested in other outdoor pursuits and entertainment. To survive and prosper, we will all need to develop creative solutions. 

The land agency profession is in the best position to support and advise landowners on the way forward. Advice from other professionals is valuable, but experience suggests that the legal and accountancy professions may have become too specialist and risk-averse to be able to see the wider picture and to lead the level of change which will be required in the next few years. Good land agents still retain the breadth of knowledge which is key to nimble and creative thinking.