Agricultural Brief - Record keeping is a healthy exercise for farmers


15 January 2020

When working to protect the interests of farmers and landowners, we often find that one of the most significant factors influencing the outcome is the quality of their record keeping.

In many circumstances we have to look back quite a long way into the past to try to establish in detail what happened. This exercise is so much easier where there are good, well-ordered records.

It is of course not only important to keep records, but to be able to find them again. In some cases we will be looking back over 20 years, so a good archive system (or memory) is essential!

What records will be needed is hard to anticipate, but there are some rules of thumb. The golden rule, to my mind, is to keep a record of all complaints and encounters with the public and all official visits to the farm. It is useful to make a note of where and when the encounter took place, with whom, and about what was said. At the time, these matters may seem trivial, but 20 years later they can take on a whole new significance to you or your successors. A simple farm diary is a useful tool.

Public rights of way and town and village greens

An example of where records can be valuable 20 years on is in relation to claims for public rights of way. The public is able to claim a right of way if it has used a route ‘as a right’ for 20 years or more without challenge or interruption. A landowner who can produce records of having stopped and challenged people on the route over a 20 year period, or of having erected notices challenging the right of access, will be in a much stronger position than one who cannot. The same is true of potential claims for town and village greens. In all cases, a note made at the time of the incident is more valuable than a recollection years or even months later. They are accepted as being far more likely to be accurate.

In the case of both the right of way and town and village green claim the landowner can best protect his or her interests by following a statutory procedure to deposit a declaration and statement with the Local Authority. This will ‘stop the clock’ on any claims, but as always, record keeping is vital because the statement must be renewed every 20 years.

Planning and enforcement

It is not uncommon for uses to take place on rural properties without compliance with planning law. Common examples are houses with an agricultural occupancy condition attached being used by someone not employed in agriculture, or properties granted permission as holiday lets being used as permanent dwellings. Alternatively, an agricultural barn may be used for a non-agricultural business.

Being able to claim a certificate of lawfulness or to defend an enforcement notice will depend on being able to prove continuous use for a period, in some cases, of up to ten years. It is possible to give evidence in a statement, but that evidence inevitably carries more weight where there is a strong and continuous trail of ‘real’ evidence in the form of written records and correspondence.

If undertaking physical works without planning permission, such as conversion of a barn or erection of an extension, it is valuable to keep receipts for materials and labour and a record of when the use started.

This short article has concentrated on long term records, some of which may have acquired almost historical significance by the time they are needed, but there is also a place for really detailed day to day records. When things go wrong they can be your first and main line of defence. Where livestock and muck spreading are concerned, records of what was done and when and what your neighbours did and when, along with a record of the weather, is often priceless if an abatement notice is served.

Summary

In the hurly-burly of daily life, when there is too much work to be done and too little time to do it, record keeping can seem to be nothing but a nuisance. It is, however, a hugely valuable exercise and a few minutes spent today making a diary note or completing a checklist could pay real financial and business dividends in the future.

This article is from the winter 2019 / 2020 issue of Agricultural Brief, our newsletter for farmers, landowners and others involved in agriculture. To download the latest issue, please visit the newsletter section of our website. 

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The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at January 2020.