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Rural views on the Liberal Democrat manifesto

Posted on 11 June 2024

Whilst the polls might be some way off forecasting a Liberal Democrat majority, their manifesto contains some interesting points that might shape campaign issues. A few themes and key policies emerge from the manifesto that will be of particular interest to rural landowners, particularly on rural housing and the environment.

First, housing is high on the agenda – with a target of 380,000 new homes a year, including new garden cities. Alongside this, solar and other forms of renewable energy are to be bolstered by reduced access costs for grid connections and devolved powers to support smaller projects.  This bodes well for those with strategic land. However, it also raises serious questions over supply and reform to the planning system. 

Any planning reform will need to take into account the Lib Dems' ambitious plans for the environment. "National Nature Parks" are to be created, alongside strategic nature frameworks, and large developments will need to show a 100% biodiversity net gain (BNG) as opposed to the existing 10%, suggesting more planning restrictions, not fewer. 

For landowners not looking at development though, the direction of travel seems promising, though the destination remains unclear.  In addition to bolstering the need for BNG units/credits, the Lib Dems intend to provide further grants under Environmental Land Management Schemes and put carbon schemes on a more robust footing – something many feel is needed. The implicit support for natural capital markets may be welcomed by those moving away from farming marginal land and in search of alternative income, though it shows backing for BNG at a point when many remain unclear on the longer-term implications and efficacy.

For those farming, the manifestos propose improved welfare standards on domestic farms and impose minimum standards on imports to provide a competitive advantage for British farmers; fresh trading veterinary and plant health agreements with the EU to permit trade with minimal need for checks; funding for better farming practices, and public procurement policies to support local, seasonal food. Farmers are to be incentivised to reduce imported and harmful fertilisers and pesticides, and investment will be made in controlling bovine tuberculosis (TB), including in vaccines.

The environmental piece goes further, with a commitment to a ‘right to roam’ for waterways – presumably meaning the Lib Dems would mandate the application of the CROW 2000 access land designation to rivers and riverbanks. To many in the rural world, this is likely to ring alarm bells. Concerns around rights to roam to date have centred on the risks to crops, livestock and sensitive wildlife areas, as well as liability, and education around responsible access will be key. An uncomfortable truth is that many sensitive habitats may suffer from public access, no matter how responsible that access is. If we see a return to the 'right to roam' debate, it will be interesting to see if divergence develops between those often politically aligned: namely those prioritising biodiversity and those seeking increased public access to the environment.

Turning to the rural rental sector, the Lib Dems proposals indicate strong support for the Renters Reform Bill, but go further: all tenancies will be granted for a three year term by default. They also advocate the abolition of all residential [long] leaseholds – one presumes only for houses, and implementing this for all leaseholds would require fundamental and wide-reaching changes in the law.  They suggest a ten-year emergency upgrade programme for energy efficiency, suggesting strong support for the minimum EPC rating to be increased further via the MEES Regulations, which will require cash for investment at a time when mortgage rates remain relatively high.

Returning to planning for rural houses, another target of the manifesto is second home ownership. The impact this could have on the country house market could be significant.  Under proposed devolved powers, council tax on second homes could be increased by up to 500%, with a reference to a further stamp duty land tax (SDLT) surcharge – presumably in addition to the 3% higher rate for additional dwellings and 2% non-resident surcharge. Alongside this, they propose a new planning use class for second homes. This goes against the tide of broadly liberalising use classes and permitted development rights we have seen post-COVID-19 – and what we presume is a strengthening of the Assets of Community Value (ACV) regime. 

Support for a few practical points will be welcome by those in rural areas. The Lib Dems promise gigabit broadband for everyone; funding will be provided to support rural GP surgeries; and rural bus routes will be improved. Finally, a new cross-departmental Minister for Rural Communities role is to be created to represent rural communities which may prove a challenging brief with so many policy considerations to balance.

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