Somerset County Council has written to 35 farm tenants informing them that their farms have been earmarked for sale.
The move has sparked furious opposition from tenants and local stakeholders. It followed a review of the council’s estate which concluded that 35 of its 62 farms had to be sold to raise funds and pay off debts.
Councillor David Huxtable said he expected to receive money from the first sales in March 2011. But he would not comment on the amount of money likely to be raised. He hinted that the council was keen to sell off more its farms.
“Some tenants may also wish to buy those farms which are not currently earmarked for sale. It’s fairly flexible,” said Mr Huxtable.
He added that prospective purchasers, the Crown Estate, were “waiting to see how desperate we get before making an offer”. “But we don’t want to get involved in a fire sale.”
The wish was to sell to as many tenants as possible – which boxed the council in somewhat, he said.
The farms covered 7200 acres, and were worth between £40m and £50m, generating an income of up to £400,000 a year.
The council served four tenants with notices to quit earlier in the year but, following consultation with stakeholders, decided to renew one tenancy and grant an extension to the rest.
“It has been a long and difficult process, but tough times have forced tough decisions,” said Mr Huxtable.
“We have listened to the views and concerns of the farmers, and have had to balance this with the savings that have to be made.”
Council leader Ken Maddock said the sale would go some way to reducing the county’s £350m debt.
“We spend £36m each year on debt and repayments. We just can’t go on – it’s like a family that has maxed out on the credit card and is now having to sell prize assets to sort out their finances. No one wants to do this but we have no choice.”