Farmland for sale sign©Tim Scrivener

Defra minister George Eustice has called on local authorities to end the sell-off of county council farms – but warned that there are limits to what the government can do to stop it happening.

“It is a tragedy that some local authorities are choosing to sell because they are closing the door and closing opportunities for new entrants coming into the industry,” Mr Eustice told the NFU Tenant Farmers’ Conference at Newbury, Berkshire.

County council farms and estates had an important role to play, said Mr Eustice on Wednesday (4 November).

See also: TFA warns against ‘dash for cash’ in council farm sell-off

But he added: “There are limits to what the government can do – these are farms that are owned ultimately by local authorities. They are run by local authorities and county agents.”

Government cuts mean an increasing number of councils are looking at alternative sources of funding. They include Herefordshire, which is considering the future of some 45 council farms encompassing about 1940ha.

Council tenant Giles McQuiston said he faced losing his 43ha farm next year if the local authority pressed ahead with proposals to sell off its estate.

“County council estates are still relevant and provide a successful route into the industry for new entrants,” he said.

A final decision on the future of Herefordshire’s farms is expected to be made early next month.

It follows a 27 October meeting of the local authority’s scrutiny committee, which has been considering the partial sale of the estate.

The council is also considering alternative approaches – including providing existing tenants with the opportunity to purchase their own holdings, and investigating the potential for any remaining estate to be managed through co-operation with a neighbouring council.

NFU president Meurig Raymond said it was “heart-breaking” that tenant farmers were going through turmoil. He said: “Some very entrepreneurial farmers started their careers on a county farm and without that first tenancy they would not be farming today.”

Scrutiny committee chairman Sebastian Bowen said it was important to choose the best outcome for the people of Herefordshire as well as for the farming community.

“Making best use of this major asset for our county has been paramount in our thinking,” he said.

Cuts in government funding meant the council had to consider maximising its capital receipts by disposing of assets.

The gross return on the council’s smallholdings capital had been less than 0.96% for 2014-15 and this did not include maintenance and support costs.