County farms in Yorkshire being sold off as austerity bites, warns Campaign to Protect Rural England

Picture: Bruce Fitzgerald.
Picture: Bruce Fitzgerald.

Vital public farmland in Yorkshire is “slowly leaching away” as large amounts of countryside plains are being sold off.

A new report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) outlines how 1,312 acres of local authority-owned county farmland in North Yorkshire has been sold off between 2010 and 2018 – the third highest amount in England – amid austerity measures.

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Some 934 acres in the East Riding have also been sold off, while the report says that with a potential no-deal Brexit there are “existential threats to the economic viability of much of British farming”.

The charity’s analysis shows that the size of England’s county farms estate has fallen by over 15,000 acres between 2010 and 2018 – a decline of seven per cent – with three-quarters of Smallholdings Authorities selling parts of their estate since 2010.

A majority (58 per cent) of this land was sold in the two years from 2016 to 2018.

County farms, which are publicly-owned, have traditionally provided ways for cash-strapped young agricultural workers to get into the industry and, according to the charity, “remain one of the most powerful levers that a local authority has for directly helping new people into farming”.

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But following a study of various council areas, the report states: “Austerity – coupled with a sense that county farms are ‘a thing of the past’, and an unwillingness by some councils to innovate to develop new income streams or business models – is driving decline in the overall extent of county farms.”

One anonymous authority - named Council A - which was in favour of selling county farms thought the money could be better used for housing and education, as it was “viewed as an expensive ‘luxury’”.

However, in a move to show the benefits of such land, the report states: “County farms could in fact provide many solutions to other problems councils face – from providing healthy food for schools, to helping address adult social care through providing more Care Farms, to bolstering council income streams through better use of farm subsidies like Environmental Stewardship grants.”

Some councils have protected and even expanded their county farms, viewing them “as vital public assets providing social and environmental benefits”, as well as a source of income.

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Seven of nine councils which responded to a survey by the charity gave details of benefits provided by their county farms, ranging from tree planting, educations schemes and supporting new entrants into the sector.

The countryside charity made a series of recommendations in its report.

It called on the government to protect the future of county farms by legislating for a ministerial lock on their disposal, and a “rejuvenated purpose statement”.

Ministers should also “forward a package of measures and new funding to enable councils to enhance” the estates,

In addition, it stated: “All councils should promote the value of their county farms, their potential to help address the climate and ecological emergencies and enable them to deliver wider public benefits to meet the needs of their community.”