Farming feature: County farms are asset we should preserve, says Tenant Farmers Association

George Dunn BA MSc FRAgS
Chief Executive, Tenant Farmers Association

George Dunn BA MSc FRAgS Chief Executive, Tenant Farmers Association - Credit: Archant

Over the past 10 years there has been a burgeoning demand from individuals nationwide looking to set up in the business of farming, writes George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers’ Association.

The eastern counties are not immune to this phenomenon.

The recent letting by Norfolk County Council of eight of its agricultural holdings attracted literally hundreds of applicants.

For those aspiring to be farmers in their own account but have not been born into families with vast owned acres at their disposal, agricultural tenancies are vitally important.

Sadly, opportunities to rent in the private sector are few and far between.

A principal reason for this is that land and land use is taxed in a way which encourages owners to either remain as farmers in their own account themselves or, at the very least, with the assistance of clever advisers, give the appearance that they remain in active farming.

Even when land from private estates finds its way into the rental marketplace it often remains out of reach for prospective new entrants as it becomes swallowed up by increasingly large owner occupiers willing to bid stratospheric rents on an assessment of their ability to spread fixed costs based on a heady mix of scarcity, hubris and the economics of the madhouse.

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It is the county council sector which provides that vital gateway into farming for new blood and has done so for over 100 years; originally for veterans of the Great War and more recently for mainly young, aspiring, keen individuals from all walks of life. It is crucial that we maintain as many of these opportunities going forward as we can.

Not only do these farms provide those essential opportunities for new entrants but they also offer wider benefits through provision of public access, links to schools for education outside the classroom, flood protection management and control, development control and opportunities for renewable energy.

Run appropriately through a sound asset management plan, they can also provide a very important source of much needed finance to local authorities for the development of frontline services for the benefit of Council tax payers.

County farm estates should be cherished for all of these reasons. However, in the recent political turmoil within Norfolk County Council, focused around the epicentre of the proposed, controversial energy from waste plant in Kings Lynn, there has been some unhelpful loose talk. Liberal Democrat Councillor Tim East is on record as suggesting that a potential £90million fine to the local authority for pulling out of the contract with Cory Wheelabrator to establish the plant, could be paid for by selling off a few farms.

To make such a statement clearly Councillor East does not appreciate the true value of the County farms estate which had been fully reviewed by the local authority only a few short years ago.

A knee-jerk reaction to sell assets to pay a contractual fine undermines the process of sound asset management needed to ensure that the County farm estate continues to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. It also falls foul of the rules surrounding local government finance which stipulate that capital receipts cannot be used to fund revenue expenditure, which such a fine would be.

From the Tenant Farmers Association’s perspective there is great concern about the ad hoc nature of policy towards county farms up and down the country. Some local authorities run their estates extremely well and others perform not so well.

Some Local authorities have decided to follow a policy of disposal and others one of retention, even in some cases expansion.

For such an important asset in the landlord/tenant system in agriculture and in ensuring a positive contribution to frontline services it is time for a more co-ordinated approach at a national level.