Herefordshire County Council (HCC) has been ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to reveal more details from a report into its tenanted farms and which advised it to sell off only part of its smallholdings estate.
In making the report available to the public, the council had redacted (obscured) sections on the grounds of commercial sensitivity on behalf of both its farming tenants and the council.
After a request from the NFU, the ICO agreed more information should to be made available from the report, produced for the council by land agent Fisher German in 2014.
Some of the redacted sections show the advice to sell off only part of the smallholdings estate and “continue to provide a means for first generation farmers to enter the industry”, said the NFU.
HCC now has until 2 March to disclose the further details. A link to the redacted version of the report sits on the smallholdings page of the HCC website.
The page includes a statement: “Please note the [Fisher German] document was never updated or approved by anyone within the council. It was not used to inform either the recommendations of the general overview and scrutiny committee or the cabinet decision.”
This is the latest stage in the long-running saga of HCC’s sell-off, which was widely opposed. The council’s cabinet agreed in December 2015 to the sale of all its tenanted farms, which covered 1,942ha across 45 holdings.
NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: “Now this information has been disclosed, it is clear that Herefordshire Council did not take on board the recommendations set out in Fisher German’s report when it voted to sell off its entire smallholdings estate.
“Seeing this report provides vindication for those tenant farmers in Herefordshire. But it’s cold comfort as it’s too late to reverse the council’s heart-breaking and short-sighted decision.
“In the three years this issue has been ongoing, the NFU has been concerned about Herefordshire Council’s refusal to disclose more of the Fisher German report as we were keen to ensure that the council’s review of its smallholdings estate was conducted transparently.
“We understood that part of the estate would have to be sold off to help with Herefordshire Council’s financial deficit. But all the while we argued that county farms provide a vital role in allowing that first foot on the ladder for new entrants to the industry.
“Communication from Herefordshire Council during the past three years has, in our view, been very poor.
“It’s vital that local authorities with county farm estates are transparent with their tenants about how their decisions are made and about the advice and recommendations of any independent and professional reports which are commissioned.
“We can only hope that, following this latest revelation in Herefordshire, the council takes a long, hard look at how it is treating its tenant farmers, many of whom are facing the devastating loss of both their livelihoods and their homes. These tenants deserve a lot better.”
The NFU is calling for local authorities with farm estates to work more closely with their tenant farmers to remove uncertainty and to make any decisions relating to those estates transparent.
Herefordshire Council response
A Herefordshire Council spokesperson said:
“The initial draft Fisher German report was incomplete and never finalised. The report was therefore not relied upon by the council in any decision taking.
“The general overview and scrutiny report undertook a thorough review of the smallholdings and their recommendations, together with the cabinet responses, can be found in the cabinet decision on 3 December 2015.
“Herefordshire Council is committed to its duty of care to the local community and to tenants. As we find alternative ways to fund the statutory services we have to provide, we need to prioritise which activities the council can support.
“The smallholdings disposal plan will help us ensure best value for money for taxpayers.”