We’re really excited that today our new vision for council farms is launched.
Over the past couple of years we’ve been working closely with the New Economics Foundation and CPRE, the countryside charity, to explore with councils, farmers and communities what role council-owned farmland can play in a regenerative future.
Our co-created vision is that “in 2040, council farms are valued by local people, are actively contributing to the UK’s climate commitments and are identified as high-quality natural assets. They are secured and managed for the benefit of the whole community including prospective, new and existing tenants and others making a living from the land.”
Our 2019 Reviving County Farms report called for a compelling new vision for public farmland, and we have built on that work here.
We set out why council farms already hold powerful opportunities, in particular through important avenues they provide for new entrants to farming. Despite being only 2.5% of the area of let farmland in England and Wales, they offer more than 10% of all new farm business tenancies, and provide one in six of all the new lettings to new entrants annually. In a landscape where access to land for new farmers can often feel like it’s verging on the impossible, the 200,000 hectares of the council farm estate are a vital national asset.
They are a real asset for local authorities too. While budgetary pressures have made many councils feel they have no option but to sell their farms, we have found that the sell-off of council farms has resulted in lost financial opportunity over time. Councils could be making more of what they already have. The nearly 40,000 hectares of council farmland sold since 2000 could have contributed £650 million to council balance sheets, or more than £16,700 per ha, as well as rental revenue during that period.
However, council farms could do so much more than bolster balance sheets and serve new entrants. We want to see a world where “Councils are recognised as trusted custodians of council farms; tenants are recognised as stewards running profitable businesses and ensuring the land, soils and water are looked after for current and future generations; and local people are recognised as stakeholders with a role and voice in decisions that affect council farms in their area.”
In the face of the climate catastrophe and biodiversity collapse, council farms could lead the way in supporting agroecological and other regenerative farming methods. They could proactively work towards justice by offering tenancies to people who are currently often excluded from farming such as Black and People of Colour food growers who face multiple barriers in accessing land for farming.
They could reconnect people with the land by providing local healthy food, educational opportunities and recreational access. Through our work on the Fringe Farming project we know that a particular sweet spot for this might be in peri-urban areas around cities, where councils often have farmland at a bigger scale, but where it is still in relatively easy reach of a large urban population, but we think it’s also important to think of ways to make these opportunities accessible to more remote rural communities as well as those living in the heart of towns and cities.
Where councils feel that they cannot continue to manage their farms, we believe there is real scope for community ownership or management models; where councils retain the ongoing ownership of the land but community-led organisations take on the stewarding and managing of the land. We are keen to work with local authorities who are looking for creative ways of reviving - or recreating - their council farm estates.
We’ve already had lots of interest from councils and farmers across England and Wales in this work, and have been sharing it with colleagues in Europe through our involvement in the Ruralization project. We know there’s plenty of appetite for a different vision of and approach to public land, one that takes a longer term view and recognises the multiple benefits public land can provide. We hope this vision is the start of constructive conversations and actions that create a new future for council farms.