County farms can lead the way on good practice after Brexit, but they’ll need proper support from central Government to make this vision a reality, says Kerry McCarthy, Bristol East MP and member of the Efra Select Committee.
Those of you waking up to this Monday morning’s Farming Today will have heard the sad and now all too familiar story of a tenant farmer having to leave her land, this time after 19 years, because the council has taken the decision to sell it.
Sue and her family are now considering moving abroad to continue farming, as they can’t find a suitable private opportunity and don’t see a future for county farms here at home.
It’s a damning verdict and another clarion call for action.
That’s why at this week’s session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming, that I chair, we posed the question: What’s the future for county farms in England?
The panel consisted of a wide range of voices and perspectives, including Guy Shrubsole, the author of Who Owns England?
It was Guy’s investigation released in June last year which revealed the acreage of county farms in England has halved over the past 40 years, from 426,695 acres in 1977 to just 215,155 acres in 2017.
Defra’s latest figures showed the decline continued between 2017 and 2018, with a further 3 per cent decrease in land. Herefordshire alone disposed of a staggering 4,196 acres.
Regrettably, the sell-off doesn’t appear to be slowing down either, with Staffordshire the most recent county council to announce it will be letting go of more than 20 per cent of its farm estate.
At the other end of the spectrum, Cambridgeshire is providing a flagship model of what’s possible.
It owns the largest council farm estate in the country, with over 32,000 acres, generating a sustainable income for the authority in excess of £4m each year.
But as Hugo Mallaby, the council’s asset manager, told us, it could’ve been a very different story. Back in 1992 the council decided by only one vote not to sell.
I understand there are tough political choices for councils to make following almost a decade of austerity, particularly to fill gaps in frontline service funding, but aren’t these farms a national asset worth saving?
That’s the argument the TFA’s George Dunn and Sue Pritchard from the RSA were making at the APPG meeting, and I completely agree.
If the sell-off is to stop, the ecosystem value of county farms needs to be captured as soon as possible, allowing local authorities to understand the potential beyond rent from flood risk management, carbon sequestration through agroforestry, educational opportunities, and more.
Underlying each panellist’s contribution was a common agreement that county farms need better protection going forward, particularly from central Government.
This could either take the form of legislation, starting with New Clause 9 to the Agriculture Bill, or simply a more hands-on role for Defra in the strategic oversight of the estate.
In an attempt to stop the decline, the Government has promised a new package of financial support for council farms, but there’s been no progress since the announcement earlier this year.
As those on the ground know well, this is not a new crisis; it’s been bubbling under the surface for decades, but the Agriculture Bill has brought it back into sharp focus.
There’s now a real opportunity, regardless of Brexit, to think again about the value and potential of our county farms and to create a blueprint for the future.
As Sustain’s Vicki Hird concluded, county farms could become publically-held beacons of a regenerative system – let’s make that vision a reality.
Kerry can be found tweeting at @KerryMP