The great farm sell-off: Spelman gives green light to agricultural land sale

A farm

With an average size of 30 hectares local council-rented farms make up a significant part of the UK's last remaining traditional smallholdings

As budgets are cut local authorities are selling off farmland without considering the long-term implications of losing a valuable asset for future generations. Tom Levitt reports

Lost amid the euphoria of last week's 'U-turn' on selling public forests there is another government-backed sell-off of our countryside currently underway - the disposal of farmland.

Local authorities in England and Wales have been letting out farm holdings for more than 100 years, providing a vital first step on the ladder for new entrants into farming in particular, with most of the farms relatively small in size.

The availability of these holdings was accorded particular importance in the aftermath of the First World War, when returning servicemen were encouraged to move into farming to help meet the nation’s demand for food.

However, local authorities are under no statutory obligation to provide farmland and have been selling off the land ever since. From a peak of around 200,000 hectares in the 1940s, holdings had dropped to 113,000 hectares in England and Wales in 2010 with around 2,000 hectares lost every year.

With increasing budget cutbacks, the Ecologist has learnt that there are now concerns that the slow sell-off could turn into a much faster disposal as local authorities look to cash in on high land prices. Current estimates put the value of the farmland at £1.4 billion. Cambridgeshire, with the largest land holding in the country, is believed to have a number of private investors interested in buying large tracts of its estate.

Although representing just 1 per cent of the total agricultural land in England and Wales, the farmland accounts for around 4 per cent of farmers and some 3,200 tenants in total. With an average size of 30 hectares, it makes up a large number of the UK's last remaining traditional smallholdings.

As well as its importance in terms of numbers of farmers, county farm tenancies also remain one of the best hopes for new entrants who want to get into farming. In 2006, 36 per cent of fully-equipped farm tenancies that came onto the market were county farms and one-third of all new county farm lets were to new starters. Farming groups say once sold there is no guarantee they will be kept as farmland and in most cases the holdings will be amalgamated with bigger farms.

Government approval

On its website, Defra praises county farms both for their 'valuable role' in helping new entrants gain a foothold on the farming ladder and for providing wider public benefit through 'Educational visits, agri-environment measures, and local food and building a link between town and country.'  

However, speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference last month, environment minister Caroline Spelman said she had no plans to intervene and stop local authorities selling-off all their farmland. 'If you are serious about localism then you have to allow a local government to decide how best to use its assets and resources. That is the essence of big society,' she said.

The amount of farmland under public ownership varies widely between each local authority. The east of England has always had the most, due to the railway providing good connections for bringing horicultural produce to urban areas and the high demand for farms in the area following the loss of agricultural labourer jobs with the mechanisation in the early 20th century.

Cambridgshire retains the biggest holding with more than 13,000 ha, followed by Lincolnshire (8,000 ha) and Norfolk (6,500 ha). The South-west and Wales retain significant amounts but some counties such as Cumbria, Essex and Oxfordshire have next to no land.

At present, officials in Cambridgeshire say the 'bulk of its estate' will be retained but elsewhere the sell-off is in full swing. Somerset recently annouced plans to sell two-thirds of its farmland holdings and Flintshire, its entire estate. Gloucestershire, which has previously been praised for investing and improving its farmland holdings now plans to sell-off almost half of them over the next 4 years. Cheshire is also planning to sell-off farm holdings while Norfolk county council is coming under pressure to sell in order to help to meet a reported £155 million budget shortfall.

Local food
and access

From the point of view of councils the farms, are said to make little money and if they were to invest the money needed to improve them would make a loss. However, tenant farmer Nick Prince, currently completing a doctorate research project into the issue, said councils were not considering the wider benefit of farmland beyond its 'narrow' agricultural productivity.

Cambridgeshire, for example, uses its estate to meet wider aims such as generating renewable energy, letting land to nature groups, setting up projects to return the fens to wetlands and granting access for local educational purposes.

Professor Brian Ilbury, from the Countryside and Community Research Institute, says the real problem is the perception that the largely smallholding farmland does not fit with the current government push for food security and proposals for large-scale farming such as the recently unsuccessful application for a 4,000 cow dairy farm in Nocton, Lincolnshire. 'The county farms don't fit into the overall structural changes going on in UK farming and the move towards intensification and scaling up in size.'

Food and farming campaigner Colin Tudge agrees and argues that government policy is failing. 'The loss of county farms has been sold to us as progress towards a great future but it's actually a dead-end. Everyone is caught up in the idea that agriculture should just make as much money as possible and compete in the global market.' He argues that the farms could kick-start a new agrarian society in the UK and help begin a wider distribution of land among people and a system of farming designed to 'feed people rather than making profit and wrecking the planet'.

Local authorities say they don't get involved in national food security issues but Professor Ilbury says they should be promoting a local food economy. Public holdings play a crucial part in the local food agenda, something some councils, such as Hampshire, have realised and are active in helping their tenants open farm shops, upgrade their facilities and market local produce.

While it is unlikely that small farmers can compete in the increasingly large-scale dairy and cereals sectors, other areas, such as horiculture are crying out for small-scale local farmers, according to Professor Ilbury, now that 90 per cent of fruit and 30 per cent of vegetables consumed in the UK are imported.

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