At the end of April Herefordshire County Council placed 1,700ha – almost its entire county council farm estate – on the market to help meet its financial deficit. It hopes the sale will raise £40m.
The move will see the biggest drop in the total size of the county farm estates in England for some time.
The total number of hectares being offered across England has dropped by a third in the last 30 years to just 90,000ha, according to the Tenant Farmers Association.
The number of tenancies has seen a sharper decline in numbers – dropping by half to just 1,700 tenants – largely due to the consolidation of holdings into bigger farms.
But the majority of this decrease occurred 10-15 years ago following reviews by many councils into the operation and profitability of their farm estates.
Inconsistencies in reporting obligations between county councils and unitary authorities make it difficult to draw a complete picture of the current state of farm estates, or track trends over time.
However, 25 county councils have reported on their estates consistently over the last four years.
Although their reports do reveal a steady trickle of land being sold over that period, the amount has remained under 1,000ha each year.
Many councils, such as Cheshire East, say they are actively investing in their existing estate, while some, such as Hampshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire have actually reported an overall increase in the land they are offering for farming.
Other than the relatively recent moves by North Yorkshire, Cheshire West and Chester, and Somerset to give up their farming estates, the last five years has seen the situation remain stable compared to the flux of the 1980s and 90s.
Herefordshire County Council’s decision is therefore in stark contrast to the strategy being followed by the majority of councils to largely continue with their farm estates.
NFU tenant group spokesperson and Devon council farm tenant Chris Cardell said buy-in by councils into their farm estates varies, but the majority are supportive.
Vulnerable to cuts
This period of relative calm is unlikely to last though as recent local elections saw a slew of new councillors voted in and an overall swing to the right.
New councils usually hold reviews of their assets after taking power, but a change in the law brought in March 2016 is likely to make farm estates even more vulnerable to being cut.
In his 2015 Autumn Statement, George Osborne gave cash-strapped councils the option to plug gaping holes in their budgets for front line services with money from the sale of assets.
Critics argued this move would make it more appealing for councils to dispose of their farming assets.
However Defra, claims in its most recent annual report on local authority smallholdings, that it would like to see retention and innovative management of council farm assets.
“I thinks it’s crazy to be allowing local authorities to dispose of assets which are potentially able to provide income to local authorities to run front line services,” TFA chief executive George Dunn said.
“In five or 10 years’ time when councils need to invest in front line services again there won’t be any income-earning assets left to help pay.
“What we think would be a better course of action would be to say to local authorities, you need to manage these holdings in a much better financially viable way and you need to look at the local authorities who are doing that already, and who are providing money for front line services, and making the county council system sustainable in the long term.”
Mr Dunn says councils who are badly managing their estates and not seeing good returns should not be allowed to use this as an excuse for a fast sale.
He is calling for Defra to step up and shoulder a bigger responsibility for ensuring councils are doing the right thing in terms of providing entry points for farmers but also good returns for tax payers.
Rather than supporting a short-term hold on council tax by sacrificing farm estates, the public has been shown to be in favour of seeing estates retained.
In March, Eastbourne Council announced that its plans to sell-off a small proportion of its farms estate to raise funds for East Sussex County Council were “off the table” after an informal poll saw local residents vote resoundingly against the plan.
If managed properly, council farms can provide local authorities with long-term sustainable income, says Mr Dunn.
Cambridgeshire County Council stands out for its farms estate strategy. It focuses on continual rationalisation of its estate and ensures there are sufficient progression units available to help tenants progress in their farming career.
Its returns speak for themselves. The council was due £3.9m in rent from its 13,190ha estate for the year up 31 March 2016.
Cambridgeshire earned £300/ha, while Herefordshire received just £226/ha.
Beyond providing a financial benefit worth £16m to rural economies in the last reporting period, county farms still fulfil their original purpose of helping first generation farmers get a foothold in the industry, Mr Cardell says.
Many have also diversified into green waste composting and renewable energy generation.
Key to ensuring farm estates are retained in the future will be achieving buy-in by both individual councillors and the wider community, with the period following the local elections critical for lobbying by the farming community.
“We did an open day last year and we had councillors here [on our farm], and it’s something we are looking at again,” said Mr Cardell.
“When councillors feel part of the estate they will buy into it more. There are opportunities for councillors to engage with the tenants, and also for society as a whole.
“I think a lot of society, if they realised they owned the county farms and if we can make them feel part of it, they will buy into the value of it a bit more.”