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New research report – Reviving County Farms

Kim Graham

CPRE, the countryside charity, is releasing a new research report today on county farms that we helped put together – but what is a ‘county farm’, and what did we find out? Research Coordinator Kim explains below. 

We’re excited to be launching ‘Reviving County Farms’ today, a report which we’ve been working on over the last few months with colleagues in the New Economics Foundation, Who Owns England?, and CPRE. We think county farms are one of the best tools we have to increase the amount of land used for the common good, by helping deliver a diverse, thriving and ecologically abundant farming system, but our research has shown they are slowly leaching away.

Wait – what is a county farm?

If you’ve never heard of county farms, or aren’t sure what they do, before reading this blog – you aren’t alone! To give a brief history lesson, county farms are farms owned by local authorities, which were set up originally at the end of the 19th century to provide a way into farming for cash-strapped young farmers during a long agricultural depression, and were sometimes rented out at below market rates. 

Today, they remain one of the most powerful levers that a local authority has for directly helping new people into farming. They are a national public asset and in England alone cover a huge 200,000 acres. As such they have real potential to support the economic viability of local farming and to promote innovative and environmentally sustainable farming methods. 

But, sadly, county farms have been quietly disappearing over the last few decades – with the full extent of the sell-off, and the drivers behind it, remaining largely unknown to policy makers and the public alike. Through this research, we set out to understand why local authorities have chosen to sell their county farms, what has happened where local authorities have decided to retain their county farm estate, and what lessons we can draw from these experiences to secure the future of such a valuable public resource.

View over Trecadwgan Farm buildings and fields, Pembrokeshire. Image credit - Save Trecadwgan Farm
Trecadwgan Farm in Pembrokeshire is a former county farm, which recently was put up for sale, and local people are now campaigning to transform it into a community farm. (Image credit - Save Trecadwgan Farm - https://www.savetrecadwganfarm.org/)

What did we find out?

Through analysis of available land data, an online survey and in-depth interviews with local authority staff responsible for county farms, our headline findings were that:

  • The size of England’s county farms estate has fallen by at least 15,000 acres between 2010 and 2018 (a decline of 7%), with three quarters of Smallholdings Authorities selling parts of their estate since 2010
  • Austerity – coupled with a sense that county farms are ‘a thing of the past’, and an unwillingness by some councils to innovate to develop new income streams or business models – is driving decline in the overall extent of county farms
  • Some councils have taken very different approaches, leading them to protect and even expand their county farm estates – viewing them as vital public assets providing social and environmental benefits, as well as an income source for the council
  • Seven of nine councils who responded to our survey gave details of environmental and social benefits provided by their county farms, ranging from tree planting, to local education initiatives, to supporting new entrants into the sector. However, other potential benefits, including procurement from county farms and community engagement in planning, were seen more as potential future avenues than current practices.

Where do we go from here?

Farming in Britain is at a crossroads. Brexit offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our system of farm payments, dominated for decades by the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Yet, the prospects of no-deal Brexit and a future free trade deal with the US represent existential threats to the economic viability of much of British farming. Meanwhile, as the scale of the climate and ecological emergencies facing the planet becomes clear, farmers and landowners have a vital role to play in caring for the countryside and in so doing helping get the UK to net zero emissions and making more space for nature. In this context, it makes considerable sense to re-examine the role our public sector – and the land it owns – has to play in supporting farming, and in particular, to reassess the value, future purpose and potential of county farms. 

Drawing on our research, our key recommendations are that:

  • The government should protect the future of the county farm estate by legislating for a ministerial lock on their disposal, and a rejuvenated purpose statement
  • The government should bring forward a package of measures and new funding to enable councils to enhance their county farm estates
  • All councils should promote the value of their county farms, their potential to help address the climate and ecological emergencies, and enable them to deliver wider public benefits to meet the needs of their community

If these recommendations are taken forward, Shared Assets sees county farms playing a vital role in creating a system of land use for the common good – providing opportunities to help us meet the interconnected challenges of climate collapse, food sovereignty and local economic resilience.

We’re hoping to explore the issues raised by the research in more depth next year, but in the meantime, you can check out the full report here, watch the segment on county farms and this research from last night’s Countryfile episode (starts at about 15 minutes in), and if you are coming to January’s Oxford Real Farming Conference, join our ‘Future of County Farms’ session on the afternoon of Thursday 9th. And as always, we’d love to hear any questions or thoughts you have on our work, so email us at hello@sharedassets.org.uk to let us know what you think.

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