Cottage industries toast farm ruling

A recent Appeal Court ruling that wine making at a Shropshire vineyard is to be classed as an agricultural, not an industrial, process is set to have major implications in the farming world.

Shropshire-based solicitor Niall Blackie has represented the vineyard owners during a protracted legal battle over their right to make and market wine from their grapes at Wroxeter Roman Vineyard, near Shrewsbury.

The case of Millington v Secretary of State for the Environment and anor brought strong criticism of the attitude of the Environment Secretary who had supported enforcement proceedings taken against the vineyard's owners by the local council.

David and Christine Millington began planting vines in 1991. Wine production began in 1996 and, like most vineyards, the scale of the activity is quite small.

The wine has since won awards and the site has become a popular attraction. People go to see the wine making, sample and buy the wine.

However, after complaints from neighbours about the volume of visitors, local planners issued an enforcement notice saying the Millingtons had changed use of the site from an agricultural holding.

The importance of the industrial or agricultural status of the Millingtons' activities was in the context of planning law.

If it was regarded as an agricultural process then planning consent would not be necessary and enforcement proceedings aimed at preventing what they were doing would not be valid.

If it was an industrial process, however, planning consent would be necessary and the enforcement proceedings would be effective.

In the High Court last year Lord Justice Mantell summed up his view in a one-paragraph judgment, describing attempts to say that wine making was not a farming activity or ancillary to the growing of grapes as "an affront to common sense".

After a public inquiry, the Environment Secretary grant-ed the Millingtons consent to continue making wine from their grapes but banned them from selling the wine there.

Lord Justice Schiemann said in the recent judgment that the legal problem was whether the Environment Secretary had been right in his view that where land was used for the creation of a new product from produce grown on it, the land was therefore no longer being used for the purposes of agriculture.

Lord Justice Schiemann said his instinctive view was that the making of wine, cider or apple juice on the scale with which the court was concerned was a perfectly normal activity for a farmer engaged in growing grapes or apples.

He said the Environment Secretary had approached the question of planning and what was permitted use of the site on the wrong basis.

Blackie says: "The decision raised an important question of planning legislation for farmers.

"The Environment Secretary had believed that the question in cases of this nature is whether a farmer is producing an identifiably different product at the end of the day, but the court has decided that it ought to be whether what he is producing is produced as an ancillary to normal farming activities.

"Because of the state of agricultural economy this is going to be an important question in the future.

"Farmers are no longer thinking purely about growing crops any more. They're having to think about running a business in a climate where we no longer have the need for such high food production.

"Farmers are being told to diversify. Diversification in future can involve moving away from old-fashioned agriculture and involve the full process, as in this case, going from growing the grapes to turning them into wine.

"It's fair to say an important agricultural planning question for the future will be whether a processing plant still falls within the agricultural process or whether it has transgressed the imaginary line to where operations are no longer consequential on the operation of producing the crop.

"It is going to be possible for a process to be categorised as industrial in one place, away from a farm, but as agricultural if it is based on the farm. This is because the Millington case relates to farms where the whole process is on one unit, not where crops are imported or exported."