The Church of England has sold almost 5,000 acres of tenanted farmland in Lancashire for a reported £50m sum.
The 4,950-acre parcel in Halsall, West Lancashire, was sold to Tom Morris, the billionaire owner of a local retail chain, Home Bargains.
Mr Morris will act as director of the newly incorporated company – The Halsall Estate Limited – and has pledged to help farming tenants “grow and promote British produce”.
A spokesman for The Halsall Estate Limited allayed fears that tenancies would be changed.
“Following the purchase of Halsall Estate, all tenants have been assured that the terms of their existing tenancies will be honoured.
“There has been no change to any tenancy agreements on our behalf, before or after the purchase,” the spokesman told the Liverpool Echo newspaper.
“Our aim is to work with local farmers to grow and promote British produce,” he confirmed.
Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn welcomed the assurances, but questioned the Church of England’s current policy of selling off farmland and tenancies.
The Church Commissioners, which administer the Church’s £8.7bn investment portfolio, have been pursuing a policy of ad hoc disposal of agricultural land, Mr Dunn said.
“Ongoing discussions over the sale of freeholds between tenants and the commissioners are at the highest level we have ever seen.
“The stated aim is to rebalance their portfolio away from agriculture to residential and commercial investments,” he said.
But there seems to be no real strategic approach in evidence, and our primary concern as it continues is for the tenants, Mr Dunn added.
He suggested that the Church was “behind the curve” because other major landowners, like the Crown Estate, had switched to retaining farm assets.
While commercial property values have suffered due to Covid-19 restrictions, residential and farmland still represents a solid proposition for investors, Mr Dunn reckoned.
That was particularly so, due to a shift in investment circles towards viewing land as an asset in managing carbon emissions, he said.
The Church Commissioners were approached for comment.