Farmers need to be alert to sudden changes in policy and take care if considering the Exit Scheme, writes Jenni Bartram, Consultant Solicitor, Harrowells Solicitors

Life seems to be three steps forward and two (or even three) back, at the moment, in farming. We were promised changes that would radically the planning system, then a complete reversal; ‘removal of red tape’, then new Acts that promise more regulation; removal the cut-off date of 2026 for applications for the opening up of pre-1949 footpaths and byways routes, without explanation from Defra, leaving doubt and continuing problems; assistance with permits for vital employees in the pig and fruit industries to enter the country and increased access to refrigeration units, to relieve the back logs and pressures, slow or not forthcoming.

The Financial Times noted recently that the port authorities are considering taking action against the Government as they have spent millions of pounds putting in high tech facilities to deal with agreed EU Border checks on incoming animal and plant products. The Government’s delay of now over 18 months in implementing border checks has left the ports with unused and very expensive facilities that they were obliged to install in respect of terms agreed by the Government.

Short term politics are not in the best interests of farming and the countryside or, indeed, a country recovering from both Brexit and Covid-19 but the message does not seem to be getting through.

So on to something that is materializing, the Exit Scheme - Defra’s plan to encourage existing farmers (in England only) to retire. The Scheme opened in April and will close on the 30th September so if you are thinking about it take advice as soon as possible. You can obtain a forecast statement to find out what you can receive and withdraw a claim at any time before you receive the payment.

Briefly, to obtain the payment you need to transfer all but 5ha of your relevant land. You can retain land for owner occupier’s non-agricultural land, woodland, farmhouse and garden and land you cease to farm and let out for a minimum of five years and with very limited break clauses (small print will need reading here). There are also more complex rules for companies and partnerships. You cannot transfer to a spouse, cohabitee or civil partner but can to children.

In theory, a tenant could give up the land but remain in the farmhouse but that would require the landlord’s agreement, as generally would an assignment or retirement succession.

Needless to say, this article skates the surface of the new offer so each one will need careful consideration. Will there be much take up? Some, if it fits in with current succession planning and it may be worth a conversation but, unless you have an alternative home already acquired, 100k or in many cases less than that sum is not a very tempting offer in current markets or to depart your farmhouse when the average home in North Yorkshire is going to cost you around 250-400k on the current market and new housing is not up to speed.

Mr Eustace also mentioned it would be helpful for new entrants to have an opportunity to replace the retiring farmers…. I have heard that one before and think that Mr E would need a whole new approach and taxation thinking.