Short-term thinking by Governments and councils has led county farms in England to fall by more than half in four decades, ‘squandering a public resource that is crucial to getting fresh blood into farming’.
A new report for the Campaign to Protect Rural England by the New Economics Foundation, Shared Assets and Who Owns England?, found the acreage of county farms fell from 172,396 hectares to just less than 84,579ha since the late 1970s.
Within that time, 39 councils saw their county farm estates decline in size, with nine of them disappearing entirely.
Between 2010 and 2018, Herefordshire Council sold off 89 per cent of its land, Somerset County Council farmland decreased by 46 per cent and Cheshire West and Chester Council land saw a 30 per cent decline.
Almost 60 per cent of county farmland sold since 2010 has been in the last two years.
Authors of the report said county farms remained ‘one of the most powerful levers’ a local authority had for directly helping new people into farming.
Report co-author Kate Swade said: “It is time the new Government halted the sale of county farms and invested in them properly for the future.”
The report puts the farmland reduction down to austerity, a lack of want by some councils to innovate to develop new income streams or business models, and ‘a sense that county farms are a thing of the past’.
It said councils that had taken a different approach had yielded positive results, such as the 100ha Cambridgeshire County Council-owned Whitehall Farm, which is working with an agroforestry and arable crops approach to build the profitability, resilience and sustainability of the farm.
Cambridgeshire was just one of two councils to increase its area between 2010-18, by 1,389ha. Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn said without council farms there was ‘basically no route into agriculture for people who want to farm on their own account’.
One of the report’s central recommendations is to require local authorities to submit management plans for scrutiny to Defra.
Mr Dunn said: “Often, we see bad financial management within local authorities lead to poor decisions being made to dispose of county farms without proper justification. This has got to stop.”