Sheep on a moor with a homestead in the distance

The Rock Review: The government’s response

The government has this week published its response to the review by the Tenancy Working Group, chaired by Baroness Kate Rock into agricultural tenancies. The original report made multiple recommendations to deliver a more resilient tenanted sector and we now consider how far the government has gone in taking up some of those suggestions.

Has the government committed to tenancy reforms?

In short, no. As noted in my earlier article, the Rock Review recommended that the Law Commission be instructed to review the law on agricultural tenancies and land use in England.

The government’s response that it would be “open to underpinning any future consultation or legislation change with a Law Commission review of agricultural tenancy legislation, if appropriate and beneficial to do so” (emphasis added) appears at best non-committal, and perhaps even dismissive.

Baroness Rock and the Tenancy Working Group were clear (by implication) that this was not only appropriate and beneficial, but necessary:

The existing legislation for agriculture and the landlord-tenant system needs to be updated to reflect the new demands on land from food, fibre, and fuel production and environmental outcomes. The policy emphasis on diversification and environmental outcomes can exclude tenants who may be prohibited from doing so by the terms of their tenancies. (Rock Review at p.96)

The government’s response is not entirely surprising given that priorities and responses to long-term challenges are likely to change as a Parliament approaches its end[1]. The Rock Review warned that given “the need for long-term stability in the sector, it will be important that any proposal to update the legislation has support from all major parties.”

In its response to the Rock Review, the government has deferred further exploration of the recommendations on legislative change to the new Farm Tenancy Forum (comprising industry representatives of tenant farmers, agricultural landlords and professional advisors). It appears to rely on the need for further evidence of how the tenanted sector is responding to change before committing to future reforms.

While collaboration with the industry is laudable, this approach has the air of reactivity about it. It may not result in the commitment to progress that is needed, for example, to increase accessibility to ELM and productivity schemes and to help such schemes achieve their objectives. Various nature restoration options that might be of interest to tenant farmers require long-term commitments, such as biodiversity net gain (30 years), nutrient neutrality (80-125 years) and carbon sequestration under the Woodland Carbon Code (up to 100 years), so security of tenure needs to be addressed.

What about nature markets and private investment?

The government agreed that “a clear roadmap is needed to support the orderly development of private ecosystem markets” and that “tenants, along with other farmers and land managers, should be rewarded and not disadvantaged for their work in maintaining and improving natural capital assets and managing the associated flow of ecosystem services.”

Defra has asked the Green Finance Institute “to work with the finance and farming sectors to explore how private sector sources of finance can be more swiftly unlocked at scale to support the farming transition, including how to resolve the specific barriers faced by tenants.”

It also intends to work with “the British Standards Institute (BSI) to take forward a fully consultative business-led process to co-design and develop an investment standards framework for ecosystem service markets, with a roadmap for implementation.”

What else is on the horizon?

The government continues to have a busy agenda in this area including nature restoration and the expansion of nature markets[2], sustainable food production and security[3], land use[4] and more[5]. We await further developments and clarification with interest.

[1] The next UK General Election is due to take place before the end of January 2025.

[2] See Defra’s Nature Markets Framework published in March 2023.

[3] The next UK Food Security Review is due in 2024 in accordance with s.19 of the Agriculture Act 2020.

[4] The government published its response to the House of Lords Select Committee Report on Land Use in England in April 2023. The Land Use Framework itself is not yet complete but is due to be published this year.

[5] E.g. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is currently in the House of Lords at Report stage. The government’s related consultation on Environmental Outcomes Reports replacing Environmental Impact Assessments will close on 9 June 2023.

 

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