Is rural housing really a barrier to succession planning?

Earlier in the summer I was fortunate to be included in the Rural Housing Summit at Highgrove House. I wondered, as I am sure you are, what a housing summit would involve. Well, in short, it was a gathering of a wide variety of professionals all involved with the rural economy in some way.  The day, which was immensely interesting, was predominantly focused on the provision of housing for retired farmers in the future and was a wonderful forum for exploring problems, airing opinions, testing theories and for the cross fertilisation of ideas amongst different sectors of rural industry.  What emerged at the forum was a general assumption that one of the barriers to succession planning in farming families is the lack of appropriate housing for retiring farmers.

Those of you who have read my previous articles will know that succession planning is a subject very dear to my heart and I work with farming families across the country to help plan the future of their farms.  Farming is a unique business where the family assets, the farming business and the family home are nearly always inextricably linked and when it comes to finding appropriate accommodation for retiring members of the farming family, housing is certainly ONE of the problems.  Gone are the days when generations live together in one house and each family unit within the farming family needs a home. There is often a reluctance by the ageing farmer to leave the house in which he was born and this is often true for both tenant farmers and owner-occupiers alike.  Others are glad to leave the ‘drafty farmhouse’ for a new, well-insulted house with all mod cons.  Some make a conscious decision that if they are to facilitate a successful succession, with the transfer of control of some, or all, of the farming enterprise being passed to the successor to ‘plough his own furrow’ then it is better if they live off site allowing the young farmer complete autonomy.  Some cannot bear to tear themselves away from the land and move to the end of the drive or a cottage attached to the farm.  Others are able to ‘swap’ houses with the successor and sadly, for some, a decision is forced upon them due to ill health or other circumstances out of their control.

What is apparent to me is that whilst the subject of accommodation for retiring members of the farming family is ONE of the problems to succession planning, it is not THE problem.  There is no doubt in my mind that the single, most important barrier to succession planning in farming is that of communication.  Even families that have started to have the conversation about succession struggle with on-going communication and fear is the biggest single issue – fear of falling out, fear of offending someone, fear of letting someone down and fear of things not being ‘fair’.  The result is that the sensitive subject is avoided at all costs and nothing moves forward.  So often I have sons and daughters telling me that this is what they ‘think’ Dad will want, or they ‘think’ this is what Mum means, or they ‘think’ this is what their siblings feel. So often comments are made and either misunderstood or misconstrued or misinterpreted.  It’s all very vague and not at all helpful when trying to plan for the future.

And plan for the future we must.    I spoke at the Farm Tax Conference in London this summer and Chairman, Jeremy Moody (Secretary and Advisor to the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers), reiterated that NOW is the time for a review of British farming.  He firmly believes that we are in a period of adaptation as we manage the economy through Brexit and that successful post-Brexit farmers will be those who are more competitive, more business-like and more proactive in the pursuit of change.  As American novelist William A Ward said “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sail.”

Change is something many of us dislike, but it is essential to a thriving business.  A business must have a sustainable and flexible business plan.  It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal but it does need to be realistic and above all it has to be agreed and communicated between the farming partners.  So let’s start the succession conversation about the future of British farming.  Let’s trim the sail, chart the course and take the opportunity to strengthen our farming businesses. 

Louise Taylor MA, MSc, Dip HRD is Managing Director of Taylor Millbrook Ltd and Partner in Barbers Rural Consultancy LLP. She is an RICS Accredited Mediator and specialises in Succession Planning. Contact Louise on 01630 692500 or l.taylor@barbers-rural.co.uk