The UK is in no position to sell the family silver. MPs should support an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to protect County Farms and restore their original purpose.
This week, Hugo Swire MP tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that could slow the sale of county farms. Parliament now has the opportunity to protect these public assets that could play an important role in a sustainable agriculture sector and greener future.
County Farms are farms owned by local authorities to provide land for entrant farmers, sometimes at below market-rents. They were first introduced by Joseph Chamberlain in 1892, who stood on a platform of providing ‘three acres and a cow’ to tenant farmers. For most of the twentieth century there were over 400,000 acres of County Farms in England. But as Who Owns England have shown, since the 1970s, alongside a broader trend of public land sales, the land owned for this purpose has been drastically curtailed – to just over 200,000 acres in 2017.
Somerset County Council has sold off two-thirds of its farms since 2010 to fund frontline services. But it’s a false economy
The decline of County Farms risks both their original purpose and the potential role they could play in future. Michael Gove, Environment Secretary, has spoken about wanting to equip the next generation of farmers to “grow better-quality food and do more to protect the environment post-Brexit”. This is becoming increasingly urgent: the median age of farmers in the UK in 2016 was 60. County Farms were originally created, and are now well-placed to provide, security and opportunities to entrant farmers who might not have access to land or the ability to take on risk. As the UK policy moves to prioritising environmental outcomes over food production through a new post-Brexit subsidy system, it will also be important to find ways to encourage and train people in environmental land management. County Farms could play a valuable role here.
Several local authorities are disposing of their County Farms for the capital receipts: Somerset County Council has sold off two-thirds of its farms since 2010 to fund frontline services. But it’s a false economy, from the perspective of public finances. County Farms can provide sustainable income as well as helping local authorities to achieve social and environmental benefits. Norfolk County Council, with the largest County Farm estate, cites benefits including increased employment and business opportunities, improving biodiversity, improving access for education and recreation, and land for affordable housing.
Hugo Swire’s amendment does not require that local authorities keep their county farms. Instead it asks for a simple requirement that councils review and submit to the Secretary of State proposals for their County Farm estates, to ensure that it’s not just immediate financial gain but broader benefits that are considered.
The UK is in no position to sell the family silver. MPs should support this amendment for a stronger, more sustainable agriculture sector post-Brexit.
You can write to your MP asking them to support the amendment: www.writetothem.com. It’s Clause NC9 of the Agriculture Bill.
Shared Assets will shortly be researching the role of County Farms in rural economies, and will also be running a session on how to halt the sale of County Farms at Oxford Real Farming Conference. Get in touch if you have experience in this area and would like to be involved.