Council farms ‘continue to suffer cuts’

A view over White Horse Farm in Capel St Mary, which forms part of Suffolk County Council's County F

A view over White Horse Farm in Capel St Mary, which forms part of Suffolk County Council's County Farms Estate. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

The number of council-held farms across the UK is in decline, according to a study.

The annual Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) farm survey found the total number of council-held farms fell from 2,532 in 2012-13 to 2,504 in 2013-14.

But over the same period, Suffolk County Council said tenant numbers actually increased with 94 tenants operating from 126 holdings in March 2014, compared to 91 tenants operating from 125 holdings in March 2013.

This was against a backdrop of its County Farm Estate area reducing from 5,115 hectares to 5,077ha, with the sale of 38ha of County Farm Estate land in the financial year to March 2014 as part of a restructure.

Meanwhile, Essex County Council said there was no reduction in the number of its farms. Its county estate is just 68ha with two tenants. A further 216ha managed by six tenants is in its Green Belt Farms Estates. It also has 23ha of grazing land and 145ha of bare land, meaning it owns about 453ha of rural land.

CIPFA said the cut in council-held farms across the UK was in line with a five year trend, with the total number of farms dropping by more than 8% since 2009-10. Its figures also showed a drop in estate management staff, with numbers falling by about 8.5% since 2009-10 to 84 professional and clerical employees.

Over the past year, average maintenance and repair costs have grown by 10% to just over £3,480 for “equipped” farms, or farms with houses and buildings, and by 10% to £65.39 for every hectare in both equipped and bare land farms held by the council.

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The average rent per hectare has also risen in equipped farms but fallen in bare land. In equipped farms in 2013-14 the figure was £275, almost a 10% increase from £252 in 2011-12. However, the average rent per hectare in bare land farms has decreased for the first time in five years from £212 in 2011-12 to £200 in this financial year.

CIPFA director of public affairs Drew Cullen said: “Data on the income and expenditure by local authorities on their farms showed that in England councils made a net surplus in 2013-14 of £7.1m (including capital charges). It is likely that increases in rent, maintenance costs and a fall in the numbers of farms and staff, are why local authorities have just been able to make this marginal surplus from their farm holdings.”

A Suffolk County Council spokesman said of the recent cut in its estate’s size: “The changes are mainly brought about by re-organisation of farms, as and when they become available. Suffolk County Council has broadly maintained the size of its estate and its tenant numbers. This will continue to be the case as property coming back in hand is offered for re-letting in the open market or through the ‘Grow Your Future’ initiative, a programme specifically providing opportunities to young new entrants.”

An Essex County Council spokeswoman explained that historically, the authority was a major land owner in the county and was at one point responsible for around 5,250ha of land, with the estate comprising of 150 holdings, divided generally into two parts – the County Estate and the Greenbelt Farms Estate.

“The County Estate farms were held by Essex County Council initially to provide an opportunity for suitably qualified new entrants to make a start in the farming profession. Most of the Greenbelt Farms Estate was acquired under the Greenbelt (London & Home Counties) Act 1938 with an objective to preserve open land from industrial development. The Greenbelt Farms Estate was also designated to provide a reserve supply of public open space and recreational areas that could be accessible from London,” she said.

David Finch, leader of Essex County Council, said: “Our current policy is to keep our farms and the council has no plans to change this. In doing so we are playing a part in supporting the agricultural economy of the county as well as preserving some of our countryside.”