Tuesday 9 October 2012

Commonage Governance

One of the features of the current system of direct payments to farmers is that even in cases of shared ownership the payments have been made directly to the individual. This has created a situation where the individual farmer makes a commitment to maintain lands in GAEC, the Dept. of Agriculture pays him for this and yet due to the actions of a third party (not necessarily a shareholder or even a farmer) the land is not actually in good condition. There is a conflict between the individual making a commitment in respect of the management of land that is jointly owned. This creates potential difficulties for all concerned, the Department of Agriculture are concerned with the consequences for all commonages, if an EU audit finds a difficulty, the compliant farmer risks a reduction on his payments if the situation continues and yet may feel powerless to influence it. Even farmers in other commonages which are in good condition have concerns that the eligibility of all commonages may be threatened by issues arising elsewhere. 

Commonage governance in the first instance is likely to be restricted to stocking issues but having a system for making joint decisions on matters of common interest can benefit shareholders in many ways. For example; 

The Dept. of Agriculture have been steadily reducing the reference area for commonages by excluding areas for roads, turbary, lakes, bare rock, scrub etc. In the bulk of cases this is done from a study of aerial photographs. In many cases the deductions are in error but if they are accepted by even one shareholder then the Dept. of Agriculture will push them through. Their insistence that the same ref area has to apply to all claimants on a land parcel means that only as a group can the shareholders hope to resist these deductions.
Tackling the abuse of their joint property by third parties with no right to the commonage. For an individual the task of dealing with third parties causing damage by trespass, grazing of stock without permission, illegal dumping or encroachment can be very difficult. As a group the shareholders can decide on what course of action is appropriate, get whatever advice is required and take the necessary action.

Realising the value of their joint property for non agricultural purposes. Many commonages have value for non agricultural purposes, for example as sites for wind farms, for recreational use and for development of sites etc. These are only viable options if they are supported by all of the shareholders. Having a structure in place that can make decisions on these issues creates opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

In the future there is the possibility of a commonage scheme. In other countries such as Scotland and England it is the shareholders as a group or an association that joins the scheme and not the farmers as individuals. The association receives the payments and then decides on what to do with the funds. They may for example decide to invest in the property by paying for fencing or animal handling facilities or they may opt to divide the money between the shareholders. The decision is theirs. It is quite likely that the authorities in Ireland may introduce a similar scheme here in the future. 

In many other countries systems of commonage governance have been in place for many years. In Ireland informal systems existed in the past but they have broken down over the years. What shareholders need is to establish a mechanism among themselves so that they can empower themselves to protect their payments and manage their assets. 

This agreement is first and foremost between the shareholders; however it must be workable and must take into account the different perspective that each shareholder has. Just as every farm is different, every farmer is different and their individual concerns, objectives and plans must be reflected in this agreement if it is to work. A commonage specialist can assist by working with each shareholder individually to identify the issues and produce a draft agreement. This draft can then be refined by negotiating with the individual farmers the concerns of others in a manner that respects each individual’s privacy. An honest broker can facilitate the shareholders to come to a common position without any risk of direct confrontation between rival interests. This process may be slow and not everybody will get everything they want but everyone can be assured that their interests will be reflected in the final draft that is put to the shareholders for approval. 

A workable agreement will have to have the support of the shareholders, it will have to have arrangements for how issues will be decided, disputes resolved, expenses met and on how income will be divided. It will allow the shareholders to be flexible in response to changing circumstances and to protect their shared asset. Only a skilled commonage specialist can assist farmers in developing such a system. BY doing this we can empower the shareholders by negotiating an agreement that is workable for the farmers and acceptable to the Dept. of Agriculture.