Sunday, April 22, 2007

Should we be a National Park ?

As I've canvassed in Rogate, Milland and Rake over the last few weeks (and particularly at the Rogate village newcomers party last night), there has been more interest in whether we should support the proposed South Downs National Park than anything else.

On the one side, some people I know at all levels of local government are concerned that the National Park will make us into some form of playground for tourists, deprive local government of power and mean that local people have even less control of their own lives than they do now.

On the other hand, I can see a strong argument which says that becoming a National Park (while it only theoretically provides the same level of protection as being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - such as we already are) actually provides a greater breakwater against the tide of development sweeping Southern England. Sadly this tide of development is likely to be strengthened by the measures Brown plans (see earlier blog) to encourage landowners to become property developers.

At present the District Council is too often overruled, on appeal, when it refuses consent to what it feels will be a damaging development. My suspicion is that, rightly or wrongly, a South Downs National Park authority is less likely to be overruled. If that is the case, we may be better off with a National Parks authority than without.

Local democracy is another difficult issue. My understanding is that all ordinary planning applications are likely to remain with the District Council (with Parish Council input) in the first instance if we have a National Park. If this is the case then many objections to the National Park fall away.

What of tourism ? I suspect many of us dread the thought of Harting Down despoiled by a large coach park encouraging tourists to come and stare at the view. Whether such things happen will depend to a large extent on the National Park authority but I think we have to hope that those who give their time to such a venture will seek to preserve and enhance our natural environment rather than simply providing amenities for tourists.

I'd welcome your views on this topic. I incline towards welcoming a National Park but am open to arguments on both side.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More Taxes By Brown on the Countryside

Labour Ministers in Whitehall are considering plans for new rural taxes on farming. Gordon Brown’s review into town hall taxes, published on Budget Day, not only recommends higher council tax bands, regular council tax revaluations and new bin taxes, but also contains proposals to hike taxes on rural England.•

Business rates on agriculture: The small print reveals plans to hit agricultural land and buildings with business rates – which are currently exempt for the tax. Unlike council tax, business rates are not banded or capped – the bill is calculated as a set proportion of the notional yearly rental value of the property.

In total, the Government’s report estimates it could raise £300 million a year extra in taxes.

Farm houses hit: These plans would also hit rural home owners. Currently, if a countryside home is adjoined by fields or farm buildings, these are classed as agricultural and not taxed. Yet under these new tax plans, this would be deemed to be a ‘composite’ property and have to pay council tax on the home as at present, and business rates on top for the land and any farm building.

Council tax revaluation on rural areas: Alternatively, if the field or farm land was designated as a garden or the farm building was converted to domestic use in order to avoid business rates, then the home would be hit in the council tax revaluation and have to pay higher council tax. The revaluation handbook of Gordon Brown’s council tax inspectors, the Valuation Office Agency, has special ‘value significant’ codes to record and tax agricultural properties, gardens, outbuildings, plot size and views of fields. Having such features will push homes into higher council tax bands; in turn, the Government is planning to increase the number of bands – thereby increasing council taxes even more.

This will result in a double whammy of business rates on farms and fields across Rogate and Milland and an under-hand council tax revaluation and re-banding on homes in the countryside. “Hard-pressed farmers in Rogate and Milland will be horrified by the prospect of a massive increase in taxation at a time when they can ill afford it. I fear this will further undermine our rural economy, and force farmers to sell off their land to unscrupulous developers. Conservatives will vigorously oppose these plans for higher taxes.”