Sheep grazing under trees©Adam Burton/Robert Harding/Rex

Thousands of acres of publicly owned farmland were sold off over the past 12 months, according to a survey of council-owned farms in England.

The total number of council-held farms fell from 2,532 in 2012-13 to 2,504 in 2013-14, the survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found.

The mass sell-off of council land has continued a declining trend over the past five years, with the total number of farms dropping by over 8% since 2009-10.

See also: County council farm tenancies – still an option?

The survey, which was answered by 85% of English council authorities, also showed average maintenance and repair costs have increased by 10% over the past year.

Average rent per hectare has also risen in equipped farms by 10% from £252 in 2011-12 to £275 in 2013-14.

However, on bare land farms held by the council, the cost has fallen for the first time in five years from £212 in 2011-12 to £200 in this financial year.

The survey also showed a drop in estate management staff, to 84 professional and clerical employees now employed on responding farms – an 8.5% fall since 2009-10.

Data on the income and expenditure by local authorities on their farms showed that England councils made a net surplus in 2013-14 of £7.1m, including capital charges.

“It is likely that increases in rent, maintenance costs and a fall in the numbers of farms and staff, are why local authorities have just been able to make this marginal surplus from their farm holdings,” said CIPFA’s director of public affairs Drew Cullen.

Only three out of 14 Welsh council-held farms responded to a request to complete the survey.

Local authority tenancy farms have been in decline for decades, to the dismay of many in the farming industry, as they provide new entrants with a way into the industry.

As budgets have been cut, many councils have been selling farms in a desperate bid to raise cash. But the Tenant Farmers Association has previously branded such actions as “shameful” and “short-sighted”.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England has estimated that 60,000 new entrants are needed by 2022 to replace an ageing workforce, with the average age of a farmer in England now 58.

Total Farms, Hectares and Staff Numbers – 5 Year Trend – England 

 

2009-10

2010-11

2011-12

2012-13

2013-14

Size of estate (hectares)

95,917

95,101

94,285

93,266

92,467

Number of farms:     

Equipped farms

      1,886

      1,939

      1,846

      1,757

      1,737

Bare land farms

        837

        835

        824

        775

        767

Total farms

      2,723

      2,774

      2,670

      2,532

      2,504

Professional staff (FTE)

       68.1

       68.7

       68.0

       67.8

       66.6

Clerical staff (FTE)

       24.3

       21.3

       19.2

       18.2

       17.8

Total (FTE)

       92.4

       90.0

       87.2

       86.0

       84.4