Transforming Surrey's rural economy in the 'smart' age
PUBLISHED: 14:37 18 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:37 18 May 2017
Connecting farms, businesses and people in Surrey through technology will create new opportunities for our countryside
The May Surrey County Show celebrates the different aspects of rural life across the county. Alongside the showjumping and competitions, owners of the region’s farms and landed estates gather to buy, sell and develop their businesses. This is a vital sector for our local economy with some 59,688 hectares of farmland in Surrey.
But it is a challenging time for our farmers. Brexit, land prices, the demise of the dairy industry and the world grain harvest are all hot topics as the industry faces an uncertain future. However, like all periods of change we also see innovation and opportunities. There is a new rural vocabulary: as well as diversification, ‘natural capital’ and ‘agri-tech’ are now shaping the farms and landed estates of tomorrow.
As advisers to landed estates across the region we have been talking to landowners and farmers to discuss how they can develop new commercial opportunities alongside their traditional business. In particular, how they can embrace the digital revolution and make better use of technology to develop their properties.
Last year, Charles Russell Speechlys published in-depth research on the future of commercial real estate, revealing that there are significant gains to be made from smart buildings. This is ‘the new real’ and rural property is no exception. Many farms and estates are now looking at the commercial potential in their property, and the buildings that were once at risk of falling out of use are now being transformed for the smart age.
At the same time, the way that people want to live and work is changing with an appetite for agile working sought by both employers and employees, not to mention a quality of life away from the big cities.
As a result, the large farm or landed estate - for hundreds of years the centre of rural life - is seeing a renaissance as an economic hub attracting business and people from town to country. Redundant buildings have been converted into business offices and improved rural connectivity enables even more sophisticated levels of business to operate in these centres.
If landowners and farmers ‘future proof’ their buildings they can use current and future technologies to take an income from not only the land, but also from their tenants in the local and even global marketplace.
Surrey is at the centre of this movement. With its proximity to London, landed estates and large farms are developing such opportunities: just do an internet search of ‘farm units to let in Surrey’ to see the potential.
This is about reconnecting the town and countryside, both in terms of education about farming and food production, and also a way to boost the local, regional and national economy.
The main question for both rural commercial unit owner and potential user is how can this benefit the wider community? This is about a farm or landed estate that farms not only the land, but also the global business community.
How can local businesses engage with rural hubs?
• If you want to be based rurally, think about engaging with your local land agents and surveyors who will know of opportunities on estates and farms.
• Think of different forms of or types of use, such as ‘makerspace’ or (flexispace’. Which suits you best in terms of how you want to work and what is on offer? The concept of hubs for entrepreneurs and start-ups is gathering pace.
• Make sure you consider current and future technologies that you might require.
• Think about locations that you want to be in, but also what these locations can offer in terms of amenity during the working day.
• Do you want to rent your unit yearly or monthly, or pay to use it for a set time?
How can landed estates and farms work with local businesses?
• Business vision: make sure you sell your commercial vision and ethos. Make the buildings, their use and future use part of your estate brand and part of your ongoing estate and succession planning.
• Space: think creatively about how to use the space available to you. Do you have redundant buildings now or likely to become so soon? Do your agricultural tenants use all of the buildings? Can any buildings be brought out of the tenancy?
• Development: make sure you get advice not only from an architect, but also from a construction lawyer on construction issues and contracts.
• Funding: banks are an obvious source of funding for development works, but consider others currently available such as the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, Government funding or crowd sourcing.
• Be creative: not only in respect of heating and energy sources and solutions e.g. woodlands and biomass heating but also in relation to your charging structures and fee models.
David Savage is a partner advising rural land owners, contractors, and consultants on a wide range of building and civil engineering matters. Jonathan Thompson is an agricultural and rural business lawyer with a wealth of legal experience in landed estates, rural property and agricultural law.