Rural practice is a small community, but it’s at the heart of some big issues

The first edition of the Institution of Surveyors Transactions in 1868 has a section on Historical Notes. Among its musings is: “The maintenance of a population by arable cultivation must have been one of the first steps towards civilization.”


  • Ann Gray FRICS

01 November 2023

Ann Gray sat in grey chair looking off camera

Photography by Ball & Albanese

Many of our early members were land agents and rural surveyors. Since then, we’ve grown substantially, and the overall profession has changed as the property industry has developed. Even so, contemporary concerns about food security reveal how our society remains dependent on the outputs of our countryside and people who work in it.

I was recently reminded of this by Duncan Peake, CEO of the Raby Estates. With two estates in County Durham, and another in Shropshire, Raby covers a lot of ground, and includes residential, agricultural and commercial property, land management, farming, forestry, leisure and tourism and country sports. It’s typical of how Britain’s landed estates have evolved since the Second World War, but, as he pointed out, it’s also an example of how rural practice is at the forefront of many contemporary challenges, from climate change to tackling housing shortages.

This is echoed by Alastair Martin, who, as secretary and keeper of the records, runs the Duchy of Cornwall: “Rural practice now encompasses a much wider range of issues than when I qualified back in the ‘80s. In those days it was much more about agriculture and estate management. Rural practice now has sustainability at its centre, this being a word that was rarely used or understood back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

The importance of sustainability is echoed by Duncan: “Taking the long view is in our DNA because anything in rural property is longer-term than in other sectors. When you’re planting trees, you’re looking at a crop rotation of 60 – 120 years. Those are the timelines we work to. For my principal, Lord Barnard, his legacy for the next generation and beyond is important. Not just for his family, but for local communities and families. You don’t do that in a sustainable way taking a short-term view.”

At Raby, the estate is also at the forefront of the agricultural transition, the shift from payments based on area or production to those based on delivering or maintaining the landscape for the public good. A peatland restoration programme is ongoing in Upper Teesdale, while Duncan awaits the outcome of two bids to the government’s Landscape Recovery Scheme.

The Duchy, too, has ambitious plans for sustainability. Its Future Farming initiative sees an in-house team including ecologists, land agents and soil specialists working alongside farm tenants to understand the natural capital it holds, recording the baseline position and identifying where opportunities exist to enhance this, as well as providing practical support to help delivery.

A new vocabulary is evidence of change. Take the term ‘Natural capital’When discussing developments at Raby, Duncan Peake, who also chairs Durham’s tourism promotion body, talks comfortably about how the plans fit with the wider county’s economic vision, and how the visitor economy is key to improving GVA – Gross Value Added.

Alastair discusses the Duchy’s long history of carbon measurement and how current plans will reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. The command of such terminology reveals how rural practitioners are engaging widely with all sorts of partners, understanding and embracing contemporary developments, even as they preserve and maintain swathes of local and national heritage.

Rural practice is not immune from the contemporary challenges flagged in current RICS surveys. Cost of living, inflation, and skills shortages are all concerns. However, Duncan raises a longer-term issue, that people in the countryside feel like things are done to – rather than with – them: “Everyone has an opinion about what we do. We need to be sensible about that: particularly in farming, grants and subsidies mean the taxpayer is a stakeholder. However, if there was more engagement between the rural environment and the rest of the UK, more good things would flow from that. It is right that the voice of rural business is heard; I hope that’s starting to change.”

As part of this, he sees a need for more dialogue between policy makers and people on the ground, and more understanding by policy makers of the realities of rural life and business. That’s an area where RICS’ proven convening power and influence can make a difference. It’s certainly something to consider for our new professional group panels.

Alastair sums up the importance of this area of practice: “It is the beginning of everything in a property context. I think rural surveyors have the widest perspective and the built environment (with the exception of some categories of marine property) really all started in the rural sector. So, we have to have wide and long vision to make the most of it. The biggest challenges are often viability as we transition to a world where food production is not always the main focus.”

This means there is also a need for new surveyors to embrace this area of practice. Duncan Peake recalls how as a young man wanting to work in the countryside but uninterested in farming he spoke to David Yorke, a land agent in his home county of Lancashire: “He didn’t put me off,” is the wry summary of that conversation. Now, 42 years into a rural practice career, he’s “never had a moment’s regret. It’s a great life.”

He also notes that his area of the profession has a strong sense of fellowship, with surveyors providing a lot of support for each other, helping develop their careers.

“This is now the most interesting and exciting time to become a rural practice surveyor. There are opportunities to make a difference that didn’t exist in my early years. If you’re looking for a rewarding and fulfilling career, land management and rural practice are definitely something to consider.”

“Rural practice is at the forefront of many contemporary challenges, from climate change to tackling housing shortages” Ann Gray FRICS, RICS President

Survey of the profession open until 17 November

Finally, whichever area of practice you work in, we want to hear from you. Our survey of the profession is open until 17 November. Check your email for a message from our independent organisers, Savanta, which will take you to the survey.


For more must-read Modus articles, sign up for the newsletter.


Changing landscapes

Britain’s farming future

Read more