Should we be farmers? That’s the question many cash-strapped county councils are asking themselves now as they look to lighten their deficits by selling off property assets. In England alone, those assets include something like quarter of a million acres of agricultural land.
Indications are that many councillors might follow the lead of colleagues in Somerset, that most rural of counties, and warn tenant farmers that the preference is to sell when leases run out. Somerset reckons it could raise £40m that way, clearing one-tenth of its current debts.
With the government chopping more than £1bn from grants to local authorities and further stringent cuts expected this autumn, big savings need to be made. And, so the argument goes, councils don’t run shops or pubs or other businesses, so why should they run farms?
The land could be sold to neighbouring farmers or for development, and the buildings most likely converted into second homes. But isn’t selling off this land similar to getting rid of the family silver; making a short-term gain without considering the long-term implications?
Ever since they were conceived after the First World War to provide returning servicemen with work, council smallholdings have given thousands of people their first foothold on the agricultural ladder. But over the past 30 years, councils have been steadily dispensing of their farms and the number of tenants has dropped by around 60 percent. In the case of starter farms, if tenants do well there’s the chance to progress to larger operations and, of course, the councils retain the ever-more-valuable land.
Yet the trend to sell is set to accelerate, ironically at a time when we need more farmers than ever if we are to achieve food security in the future. In a different context, Prince Charles highlighted the difficulties of getting into farming when I talked to him recently on Countryfile. Now it could be even harder, and much heartache awaits existing tenants who, having put everything they have into their farms, may be driven off the land.
But when it comes to fighting for the principle of tenancy, all is not lost. Some councils, such as Devon and Gloucestershire, say farming is part of their heritage and they have no intention of selling their estates. Staffordshire has changed its mind, and after deciding to sell off nearly 9,000 acres, has now given the go-ahead to a “massively positive programme” that will reinvigorate its farms.
George Dunn of the Tenant Farmers Association tells me there needs to be national coordination so that politicians don’t switch their plans for farms every time there is an election. He holds up Gloucestershire as a beacon of how things should be done. Since 1974, it has raised around £50m by selling off portions of farmland for development – and spent £10m of that in modernising its smallholdings and buying more land, so the size of its estate has hardly changed.
Somerset points out that its farms lost money last year while supporting just 70 families – a subsidy that, it says, it can’t afford. At the moment it’s assessing each farm and will give verdicts this month, offering tenants first chance to buy, if they can raise the money. How many other counties, who up till now have been happy to support farming, will be forced to rethink as the cutbacks bite even deeper?