AT THE end of 2003, land agents said the next 12 months would be categorised by strong demand and little supply. In south-east England they weren”t wrong.

Only Hants, Kent and Oxon managed to offer over 2000 acres for sale during the year to November, with Surrey and Bucks failing to even break the 1000-acre mark. In total, 13,824 acres were launched onto the open market – fractionally more than last year, but less than half of the average annual volume between 1998 and 2000.

This situation looks set to continue into 2005 with few agents boasting of burgeoning sales ledgers for the New Year. Most now also seem to accept that the mid-term review should not be a barrier between willing sellers and buyers, although few are predicting a glut of new instructions once the single farm payment has been claimed for the first time.

Lack of availability has helped boost land prices, with Crispin Holborow, head of farm sales at FPDSavills, estimating that values will have strengthened by over 20% by the end of the year. He said there could be room for further increases next year.

“During the latter half of the year, the top end of the market has been stronger than I expected. The stock market is up and there is more confidence in the City. It bodes quite well for the early part of next year.”

A large proportion of sales in the region are residentially driven, so worries about the mid-term review should have less of an effect than in more commercial areas of the country. But Mr Holborow said there were few reasons for people to sell with interest rates low and the strong inheritance tax benefits of owning land.

In the entire region, there have been few “flagship” sales for agents to really crow about, but the sizeable properties that did reach the market have mostly sold well, often for over their guide prices.

In Hants, most of the larger sales have been of blocks of land with buildings but no principal dwelling. These have been snapped up by local farmers or land owners.

Smiths Gore and Strutt & Parker launched two of the country”s first commercial offerings of the year at Twyford – New Barn Farm, an arable unit guided at £1.25m, and Warren Farm, a 550-acre state-of-the-art dairy set-up priced at £2m. Both belonged to the same vendor and sold very well, according to S&P’s Natalie Price.

Miss Price said the firm already had some good instructions for next year, including a large estate. She reckoned the timing of the General Election could influence the land market in the first half of 2005. “Once the General Election is out of the way the market might pick up. It doesn’t like uncertainty.”

Simon Pallett of Dreweatt Neate said values were being boosted by buyers chasing the very few farms coming to the market. In conjunction with Strutt & Parker he has just sold 637-acre Priors Court Farm at West Hanney, near Wantage, Oxon, to a local farmer for significantly” over its £3.8m guide.

substantial offers

“We put a guide of £2500/acre on the bare lots at Priors Court Farm and had more than a dozen offers substantially in excess of that figure. However, the farm (which included an eight-bed house) sold as a whole,” said Mr Pallett.

Kent is the only other county in the south-ease to see any sizeable launches.

Easter saw the launch of the Dunmore Estate, a joint agency sale by FPDSavills and RH & RW Clutton. Valued at £6.25m, the 1006-acre estate sold in 10 lots, according to Mr Holborow. He said there was lots of interest in the residential aspects of the sale that drove the sale past its guide by a “good margin”, but the farming element wasn’t “that exciting”.

Plurenden Manor was launched by Charles Clarke & Co and FPDSavills in the autumn and it is believed that a sale is close to being wrapped up on the 425-acre dairy unit that was guided at £3.5m. There was initial interest from dairy farmers but it is unknown if the farm will stay in milk.

Alan Mummery of local agent Lambert and Foster said the firm had had a quiet year with little other than small blocks of land to sell. “Anything over 100 acres has been thin on the ground. Twenty acres will fetch £3000-£4000/acre and very small parcels are making dizzy money.”

James Hickman of Hobbs Parker said there had been good interest in the few blocks of commercial land that the firm had been instructed on and a deal had already been struck on 85 acres of Grade 2 land at Otham, near Maidstone, that was launched in November.

Mr Hickman said strong local interest had pushed bidding over the £2500/acre guide even though no entitlement to the historic SFP was included. “It goes to show that in some instances location is more important than subsidy payments.”

To capitalise on this demand, Mr Hickman has just launched a 97.5-acre block of mixed land at Kit”s Coty, between Maidstone and Rochester. The land, which includes the Kit”s Coty Stone archaeological site, is guided at £2250-£2500/acre without historic entitlement and has been split into three lots.

In Sussex, Charles Clarke said the market was being driven by non-farmers and the land that was available was being bought for its amenity value. “Blocks of 20-30 acres of attractive land are making £4500/acre.”