Who owns our land?
The UK farming area is approximately 17.2 million hectares, consisting of roughly 212,000 farming holdings, each with an average area size of 77 hectares and receiving an average of £13,500 in EU support annually. Around 70% of the UK land area is actively farmed either as arable or pasture. In England there are over nine million hectares of farmland, 30% of which is occupied on tenancies or leases of one year or more. About half of the tenanted land is on short to medium-term Farm Business tenancies and half is on secure tenancies under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986.
The strong pound and weak global commodity prices have been causing considerable downward pressure on UK farm incomes. The plight of dairy farmers has been well publicised due mainly to China’s withdrawal from the European milk market and a bumper harvest last year is further depressing the cereal market which was already moving backwards. Farming has long been recognised as being counter cycle to the rest of the economy and this is now taking its toll on the industry as the country begins to emerge from recession.
Whilst there are no nationally collated figures available for foreign investment in UK agricultural land, anecdotal evidence from real estate agents suggests that the stable nature of the English land market, combined with fiscal incentives have encouraged both foreign buyers and UK-based investors. There seems to have been a trend within the UK where investors have moved out of ‘risky’ assets to seek a ‘safe haven’ for their money, particularly after the 2008 recession. Inventor Sir James Dyson’s purchase of 25,000 acres (10,000ha) of English farmland over the past 10 years is a good example of a non-agricultural buyer.
It is important to note that all land in England and Wales is required to be registered at Her Majesty’s Land Registry following any significant change in title. However, this does not affect land that has not changed hands since registration was made compulsory and the Land Registry estimates that 20% of the land mass in England and Wales remains unregistered. Accurate statistics on the identity of landowners and the nature of land holding in the UK are therefore very difficult to produce.
Two thirds of UK land owned by 189,000 families
Research by Kevin Cahill in 2002 found that two-thirds of UK land was owned by 189,000 families but he could not account for 10% of the country’s land ownership. Amid fears that proceeds of crime are being ‘laundered’ through the UK property market, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for more transparency and last year announced proposals for the Land Registry to publish details of land held by foreign investment companies. The Financial Times has estimated that at least £122bn of property in England and Wales is owned by offshore companies and whilst most of this investment will be in commercial and residential property in London and the South East, some will be in agricultural property across the UK.
A number of fiscal attractions exist to land ownership as an investment within the UK. Agricultural land and buildings are largely free from inheritance tax and farmland and buildings used as part of a business can obtain significant relief from capital gains tax.
What is the future for British farming?
But what does this mean for the future of British farming? With the milk price still a contentious issue and the prospect of a wet spring, there seems little to look forward to. The majority of UK land may still be in family ownership but how long can this last without considerable investment, diversification or improved markets? Will the prospect of increased non-farming investment in agricultural land herald a new era of tenant farming in the UK? Only time will tell.
Mike Taylor FRICS, FAAV, FNAEA is Senior Partner with Barbers Rural Consultancy in Market Drayton and delivered a paper on UK Land Ownership at the 2015 European Council for Rural Law Conference in Germany on behalf of the Agricultural Law Association.