Herefordshire County Council (HCC) is to be investigated by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) for possible maladministration of its farming estate sell-off after a tenant farmer lodged a complaint.
At the beginning of the year the council served about a dozen tenants with notices to quit after having assured them a month before that their homes and livelihoods would be protected and transferred to the estate’s new owner.
The Conservative council’s leader, Tony Johnson, who gave the assurances, told Farmers Weekly at the time that he had only been referring to Agricultural Holdings Act (AHA) tenancies and Farm Business Tenancies (FBT) would not “necessarily” be protected.
The council’s task and finish group previously recommended that the farm estate be retained and rationalised, but the cabinet used its executive powers to overturn this recommendation.
‘Nobody has been to see us’
Mixed farmer Nick Lloyd, who has been a tenant on the council’s estate for 19 years, made the complaint to the ombudsman with the support of the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).
He was served notice to quit on his six-year FBT with the end date set for January next year.
“Nobody from the council has been to see us since we were served notice to quit,” said Mr Lloyd.
“The only correspondence we’ve had is a tenant ‘support package’. [They are offering] £500 to each tenant for business planning or financial planning – but you’ve got to spend the £500 before you can claim it back.”
The package included a list of contact details, mainly for non-council services, said Mr Lloyd, but these included organisations such as the TFA and businesses such as auctioneers “which as farmers we already know about.”
Disposal plan may be too late for tenants
The council has said tenants will be given the opportunity to buy part of all of their holdings if it does not impact the overall sale of the farming estate, but tenants will not be given details until after a disposal plan has been formulated.
A council cabinet meeting last week was held to discuss the appointment of an agent to develop the disposal plan.
Mr Lloyd said he feared the plan would not be ready until the autumn, leaving him and other tenants in limbo until then. “At the moment we’re carrying on, [but] we can’t really do anything and it’s very difficult not knowing,” he said.
We need clarity, say tenants
Tim Lane, another HCC farm tenant who has been served notice, said the council faced having land left unfarmed and houses empty if its tenants left before a buyer was found.
“We need clarity. Everybody needs to know where they are,” said Mr Lane
“It would be ridiculous if we all moved out in winter [when many tenancies end] and then a new owner bought the estate and everyone was off farming somewhere else.”
George Dunn, chief executive of the TFA, said about 10 tenants were at the cabinet meeting last week and had been hoping for the notices to quit to be rescinded, but were told this would not happen.
He said the LGO’s decision to investigate was “a great boost” for tenants.
A spokesman from the LGO said it could not confirm or deny whether a case was being investigated, but it did have the power to ask a council to rectify an issue for all those affected, not just the individual who has made the complaint.
The council has offered tenants a meeting with a cabinet member and senior manager in the next few weeks.
When asked for a comment about the LGO’s investigation, HCC said it did not want to make a comment at this time.