A sign saying "For rent" in a field© Cultura/REX/Shutterstock

The total area of county council farms in England shrank by more than 1,000ha between April 2015 and March 2016, according to latest figures.

The government has published its Annual Report to Parliament on Local Authority Smallholdings in England which this year collates data from 42 local authorities.

It found the number of county council farm tenancies in England fell by 61 in 2015-16, with 115 new tenancies granted, but another 174 terminated.

See also: Eight county council farm tenancies up for grabs

Figures on the amount of land acquired and disposed of by each smallholdings authority in 2015-16 showed 86ha were acquired by three smallholdings authorities and a total of 1,048ha were sold or otherwise disposed of.

The land sold off was spread across 25 different smallholdings authorities with the highest amount sold in Bedfordshire (130ha).

The local authorities with the most farmland are now Cambridgeshire (13,190ha), Lincolnshire (7,720ha) and Norfolk (6,450ha).

The report acknowledged the data set was incomplete, but the figures indicated council farms continued to play an important role in the tenanted agricultural sector across England.

In total, they cover approximately 86,700ha of agricultural land providing approximately 2,583 holdings for about 2,081 tenant farmers.

National asset

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, warned it was difficult to get firm figures to demonstrate the decline in land area over time as Defra’s annual report relied on local authorities to put forward their own data.

But he was not surprised to see another reduction in the area of land available.

“There are counties like Cambridgeshire, Staffordshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Warwickshire which are looking at how to create a ladder which enables people to move on,” he said.

“They are managing the estate so it earns income and offers an entry point for new entrants.

“But there are others – like Somerset, Shropshire and North Yorkshire – where they are just managing the decline.”

Mr Dunn called for central government to be given more control of how local authorities manage what should be seen as a ‘national asset’.