Concerns raised over potential sale of showgrounds

The organiser of the Greatest Online Agricultural Show has warned against the temptation to sell agricultural showgrounds that have struggled to survive over the past 18 months due to Covid-19.

Berkshire estate manager David Hill launched the online ag show last year to fill the gap left by the cancellation of dozens of farming shows and events because of the pandemic.

Although Mr Hill says the online platform was very successful, he insists it is no replacement for the hubbub of the physical agricultural show.

See also: Mixed prospects for agriculture shows during 2021

Some outdoor shows, including Cereals and the Great Yorkshire Show, have managed to take place this summer after they were cancelled last year because of Covid.

Therefore, Mr Hill decided not to host the online show for a second year.

But with his own local show, the Newbury Show, facing an uncertain future, he warned against rash decisions to sell off showgrounds for short-term gain when their value to society in the long term is so important.

Covid testing centres

“This year, many showgrounds, such as the Royal Welsh and Three Counties showgrounds, have been used for Covid vaccination or testing centres, and they have played an important role in making that work,” said Mr Hill.

“Showgrounds and their societies rely on show profits and rent from other events to keep them afloat and to keep the showground available and maintained, as well as to put on their shows.

“In the past year, many have seen almost total collapse in both of these income streams. 

“To maximise the asset value, a sale might be an attractive way to get the society’s cashflow back into black. But once a showground has been sold, more than likely it will or can never be replaced.”

Mr Hill spoke out amid growing concerns that the Newbury Showground could be sold to developers wanting to turn it into a logistics and distribution centre.

According to local reports, the Newbury and District Agricultural Society has seen its profits dented over the past four years due to substantial six-figure losses from the 2018 and 2019 shows and the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 shows due to Covid.

A fall in showground lettings income and a large bank loan and a reduction in free cash reserves have also hit finances.

A campaign group led by local farmer Steve Ackrill has launched a Save Our Showground online campaign to try to prevent the sale.

Mr Hill said: “The showground site might be worth a chunk of money to turn it into a commercial site. But long term, as a community asset, it’s worth an awful lot more.”

RHS lifeline

Other agricultural show societies that have faced financial troubles during the pandemic had sought help from their members, he noted.

For example, last September the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland issued an appeal for £2m of funding to save the Royal Highland Show. The show managed to go ahead this year – albeit behind closed doors – thanks largely to £750,000 of funding from the Scottish government.

“I think it showed that if you go to your members and say, ‘we’re in a bit of trouble, we need help’, there is a lot of support available,” said Mr Hill.

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