I originally wrote this blog in May when the Conservative Party had a 20 point lead in the polls and everyone expected them to be re-elected with an increased majority. At that time it was reasonable to assume that the contents of the Conservative Manifesto would become law. This all seems a very long time ago now and, following the Queens Speech on 21 June, I have taken another look at the Government’s Manifesto and tried to work out how the new Government’s policies are likely to affect agriculture, the environment and the rural economy.
What can we expect to see from the new government for farmers and animal welfare?
The point which grabbed all of the headlines in the farming press ahead of the election was the commitment to provide the same cash sum for farm support up to 2022 that would have been available if the UK had remained in the EU. This will not require legislation apart from the Finance Act which the DUP have promised to support. The financial support is to be welcomed but the sum that has been committed will not keep pace with inflation and there is no detail on how the support will be provided or, more importantly, how it will be divided between different types of farming. As always the devil will be in the detail. The commitment assumes that Parliament will run for a full 5 year term but if the Government falls before 2022 then everything will be up in the air. Finally on 21 July, Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced that in the future subsidies will be linked to steps taken to protect the environment and enhance rural life.
Farmers will also welcome the news that the Conservatives intend to replicate all existing EU free trade agreements by ratifying free trade agreements entered into during the UK’s EU membership. This suggests a commitment to securing overseas markets for the livestock and crops produced in the UK. The only agriculture legislation mentioned in the Queen’s Speech was a law to establish new national policies on agriculture and fisheries. These policies should appear within the next two years but we have no detail yet.
The manifesto also flagged up a new Agri-Environmental Scheme linked to a 25 year environmental plan. Particular projects mentioned include enriching soil fertility, planting hedgerows and even building dry stone walls. There will also be a focus on natural flood management and the quality of water courses. There was no mention of this scheme in the Queen’s Speech which suggests it will not be established during the next two years but Michael Gove’s speech on 21 July suggests that it will be linked to the new subsidies scheme that will be established after 2022.
The Conservatives have responded to recent concerns about animal welfare by proposing mandatory CCTV recording in all slaughterhouses. It is unclear whether the CCTV footage would be monitored in real time or, if it has to be retained, how long it will need to be stored. Farmers will no doubt be keen to find out whether the additional costs are absorbed by the abattoirs or passed on either to livestock producers or consumers. Again there is no mention of legislation on this issue in the Queen’s Speech so we do not know if and when this new obligation will be introduced.
The same manifesto also promised a free vote for MPs on lifting the hunting ban. This was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and there is a wide spread view that this proposal will be dropped now the Conservatives have lost their majority in the House of Commons.
What development plans have been proposed?
In terms of development, the new Government confirmed an existing promise to build 1 million new homes by 2020 and added a new promise to build another 500,000 new homes by 2022. The main tools for achieving these ambitious targets appear to be freeing up more land for development and speeding up the development process e.g. giving councils powers to intervene if developers do not implement planning permissions. At the same time the Conservatives have re-iterated their commitment to the Green Belt, National Parks and AONB. The Queen’s Speech did not refer to any legislation in this area so it will be interesting to see how this promise will be achieved. Unless the Government can achieve its objectives without new planning laws it is difficult to see how the new homes target will be achieved by 2020.
Landowners and farmers in the North West may be disappointed to see that, notwithstanding the departure of George Osborne, the existing commitment to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail continues. HS2 legislation is already on the statute book and there is cross party support for this scheme so I doubt this proposal will be de-railed.
Will there be any progress on the development of renewable energy?
There is also little sign of a change of direction with the Government’s policies on renewable energy. The Conservative Manifesto stated that there will be no more large scale on-shore wind farms and the emphasis will be on off-shore wind. However, some commentators have observed that these comments suggest that the door has been left ajar for the return of some on-shore wind turbines. As well as an explicit reference to projects on remote islands in Scotland, the use of the words “large scale” suggests that new developments, involving just one or perhaps two turbines, may be permitted during this parliament.
None of the other main forms of renewable energy such as solar, hydro, AD or tidal are mentioned in the manifesto. This suggests that there will be no return of the generous subsidies previously paid to these schemes and they will have to fend for themselves with either no subsidies or ever diminishing subsidies. The Queen’s Speech does not refer to new planning or energy legislation so it looks like existing policies will continue rather than any new policies being introduced by legislation.
The new Government will continue to focus on shale gas believing that it can deliver a low cost and reliable source of energy which also enables the nation to meet its carbon reduction targets. The jury is certainly out on that issue with some commentators sceptical about the role that shale gas will actually play in addressing the country’s energy needs and the challenges of climate change. In its manifesto the Conservative Party, proposed shaking up the planning system so that non-fracking drilling, e.g. boring exploratory wells, would be treated as permitted development and would not need planning permission. Also decisions about major shale gas developments would be dealt with under the national planning regime rather than at a local level. As the Queen’s Speech does not refer to any new planning or energy legislation and shale gas is a controversial topic, I doubt whether changes promised in the manifesto will make it on to the statute book.
Improvements to rural communication:
Finally, in another boost to the rural economy, there is a commitment that every house and business in the UK will have access to superfast broadband by 2020 with national coverage of full fibre connections by the end of the 2020s. Clearly the new Government is confident that the recent shake up at BT Openreach will deliver impressive results. There is also a commitment to extend mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022 which will no doubt be welcomed by those living in the more remote and rural parts of the country. These targets could be achieved without new legislation so I would expect them to remain part of the Government’s policy.
The Conservative Party’s poor result in the election and loss of an overall majority is likely to mean that few of its manifesto promises lead to new laws, particularly in controversial areas where there isn’t any cross party support. The Government is likely to concentrate on delivering Brexit and re-shaping agricultural policies following Brexit.
For more information on any rural and agricultural projects or advice on how this manifesto may affect your agricultural property and developments, please contact Stewart Smith on 01244 305919.