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The Countryside Stewardship Scheme: Issues for buyers and developers of land

Print publication

06/02/2018

Steve Nixon highlights the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and offers his practical advice for potential purchasers and developers of land.

The CSS

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) [1] is a new environmental land management programme, designed to encourage biodiversity and to protect environmental standards across land brought under the scheme. The scheme offers financial incentives for farmers, land managers, landowners and tenants, in exchange for a commitment to meet specific, pre-defined environmental objectives relating to land. Such objectives may include commitments to provide new hedgerows, improve water quality, and create new woodland space.

The CCS is administered by Natural England, the Forestry Commission and Rural Payments Agency on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Issues to consider when buying land affected by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme

Prospective buyers and developers of land would be well-advised to conduct thorough enquiries before agreeing to purchase land affected by the CCS. Natural England have confirmed that unless a new owner expressly opts to continue an existing CSS on their newly acquired land, then that CSS scheme will automatically come to an end.  However, many land features which have been developed as part of a historic CSS may attract the protection of existing environmental law. For example, hedgerows longer than 20m are protected under the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, and so cannot be removed without the consent of the local authority. Similarly, nesting birds are protected from any development work which might harm the birds or destroy their nests under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Additionally, land which is held to contribute significantly to the maintenance or restoration of a natural habitat or species may gain additional protection under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.

Failure to comply with such environmental legislation can constitute a criminal offence, exposing any party breaching the legislation to both fines and potential imprisonment, as well as enforcement action by the relevant authority.

A new owner of land may not inherit any obligations to continue a previous CSS scheme agreed by a past owner, but could be faced with additional environmental obligations or restrictions on the use of the land, as a result of the land having been previously subject to a CSS scheme. Of course, if the land is not being acquired for development purposes, the new landowner may be content to continue the existing CSS scheme and notification may be given to Natural England to this effect, in which case both the ongoing land commitments and financial rewards will be transferred from the previous owner [2].

Brexit

As the CSS is underwritten by domestic legislation, it is unlikely that it will be immediately affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. It remains unclear whether the UK Government will decide to abolish or otherwise substantially alter the CSS once the UK leaves the European Union and is no longer compelled to enact EU Directives. While the Government continues to negotiate the terms of Brexit, it remains difficult to predict the exact form environmental protection legislation is likely to take in the future.

WM Comment

While the CSS itself does not appear to create any new environmental protections, land affected by historic CSS schemes may be subject to existing legislation of which potential buyers and developers need to be aware prior to any decision to purchase or otherwise acquire interests in land. Failure to conduct sufficiently thorough investigations into the potential environmental protections over land may result in significant frustration for new owners and developers. To this end, our Real Estate and Planning & Environmental teams at Walker Morris are able to provide expert advice concerning the benefits and impact of any CSS scheme.

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[1] The scheme has its origins in the Common Agricultural Policy (Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 December 2013) and has been implemented in domestic law through the Common Agricultural Policy (Competent Authority and Coordinating Body) Regulations 2014, the Common Agricultural Policy Basic Payment and Support Schemes (England) Regulations 2014 and the Common Agricultural Policy (Control and Enforcement,
Cross- Compliance, Scrutiny of Transactions and Appeals) Regulations 2014.
[2] ‘Countryside Stewardship Manual’ published Nov 2015 by Natural England, p 84-85

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