Young farmers suffer as councils rake in millions

Mary Creagh
Mary Creagh
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Council chiefs across the country have come under fire after it was revealed they have made hundreds of millions of pounds by selling off land traditionally reserved for new farmers.

Investigations by the Yorkshire Post have revealed England’s county councils have realised just under £308m in the last 10 years by selling off “starter farms”, rather than letting them to new tenants.

Such farms have been traditionally been a entry point for many young farmers cannot afford or do not inherit farmland.

However councils, faced with strong demand from developers and enforced budget cuts in recent years, have sold more than 900 of them in the past decade.

The sales come as the average age of an English farmer has reached the mid-60s and amid a tight supply of farmland, with landowners reluctant to sell.

The predicament is greater as, for the first time in a decade, more young people went to enter agriculture.

The Government’s own figures estimate the country will need an additional 60,000 new farmers and the lack of opportunities are proving very worrying to some farming leaders.

Figures obtained by the Yorkshire Post show there were 2,670 county council-owned farms in England in 2001, a figure that has declined to just 1,765 in 2011.

In total, the sale of these farms was worth £307,994,382. Shropshire County Council alone netted just under £39m from selling 52 while Somerset and Norfolk County Council each made just under £29m.

Lincolnshire County Council sold off some 104 farms, netting £11.5m.

Regionally, North Yorkshire County Council, who did not respond to the Yorkshire Post’s enquiries, sold 11 at a profit of £4.8m. It now has just 80 left.

The figures also showed that sales of farms spiked during the property boom in the middle of the last decade.

Although they declined during the start of the economic downturn they have steadily been rising again, as under pressure council leaders look to make savings wherever possible as part of a massive austerity programme.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, warned that councils were being short-sighted in their decision to sell off the farms, arguing that properly managed holdings would generate more income for them in the long-term than would be earned by simply selling up.

He said: “It is not just the income from renting out the farm, if you manage the land well you can get many times the market value.

“I think if you asked a council tax payer in Yorkshire as to whether they would rather sell off assets now and then face a council tax increase in a few years I think we know what they would say. It is a case of making the assets work better for you.”

The sell-off of county council farms was lamented by the coalition Government’s Farming Minister Jim Paice last month.

While describing the practice as “a shame” he also ruled out the idea of Government imposing further regulation on the local authorities, saying it was up to individual councils to make their own determination on the matter.

But Labour said it was Government policy that was driving councils to sell off the farms.

Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield, said: “The Tory-led Government has no plan for jobs and growth in the countryside and the fire-sale of county farms will choke off one of the few routes into agriculture, for young farmers.

“The Government has already gone slow on rolling out rural broadband, cut bus services and is scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board for low-paid farm workers.

“People in the countryside are wondering what is going to hit them next.”

Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton Anne McIntosh, who chairs the Efra Select Committee, said, however, that it was not necessarily up to councils to facilitate new entrants into farming.