Farming feature: Suffolk farms reform to fit county-owned farmland to wider council aims
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
Suffolk County Council this year announced a shake-up of its county farms. Now it is launching a support package for potential applicants seeking tenancies on the County Farms Estate. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to councillor James Finch, who has been leading the initiative.
As soldiers returned from the First World War, some were given use of a plot of land to help them get back on their feet.
The practice of local authorities providing support through a bank of landholdings which it divided among some of its rural residents to farm continued throughout the last century, and councils’ farm tenancy schemes became a means for many would-be farmers to get their foot on the ladder.
In recent years, many local authorities have given up their council farms, but Suffolk County Council decided some years ago to hold onto most of its farmland in order to further its wider policies.
In 2001, it reviewed the role of its County Farms Estate and decided to move away from its objective of providing opportunities to would-be farmers towards a wider remit of running them for the benefit of the people of Suffolk as a whole.
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As a result, a ‘progressive rationalisation’ has taken place as and when tenancies have come up, cutting the total estate from 138 holdings over 14,000 acres in 2001 to 94 holdings over 12,947 acres today. Across these are about 85 farm homes.
The council is one of the top three landowners in Suffolk, and as a largely rural authority, with strong farming links, the authority looked long and hard at the issue of keeping its land bank.
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In 2012, its audit committee considered a paper which reviewed the management of the County Farms Estate. Because it was beyond the remit of the committee to look at the policies behind it, it commissioned a cross-party Policy Development Panel to look at the issues, including the future role of the County Farms Estate, the future financial sustainability of its tenants, non farming uses for the properties and opportunities for the estate to meet the council’s wider corporate priorities,
Suffolk County Councillor James Finch was put in charge of the council’s rural estate policy and strategy and gathered a team to look at this. The team included Brian Prettyman, strategic manager for SCC Property, Duncan Johnson, assistant director for SCC Property and Sarah Barron, corporate property adviser for county farms.
As James explains, the council believed that more people needed to benefit from its farm asset, and that while the use of the land needed to be worked out on a commercial basis, it should be tied in to its core policies.
“We kept the land because we had to decide what was in the best interests of Suffolk. If we had sold the land, the capital realisation would be probably half the freehold value (because they were tenanted). They all had various different lengths of tenancy to run, and we decided we didn’t want to sell,” explains James.
“It was all built up for those coming back from World War I. First of all as employment, but also as some remedial support.
“In the last 10 years, we have actually reduced the number of tenancies from about 130 to about 94. That was a consolidation process which was very successful.”
The purpose of the current strategy is to help the county’s agricultural sector, but also to further the council’s wider aims.
“We want to link council farms to the objectives of the county council. We are not a charitable organisation just to look after a niche set of the community. We have the council farms to help us with our objectives,” explains James.
“Our objectives are fivefold - economic growth and jobs, education and standards, supporting vulnerable people, building on Suffolk’s strengths, and localism, or allowing decisions to be made locally.”
The council’s farms ticked most of those boxes, but James, and his policy development panel, were also looking at wider issues, such as concerns about the inexorable rise in the average age of farmers, and the need to inject some younger blood and new thinking into the sector to make it more vibrant and forward-thinking in order to help drive the Suffolk economy as a whole.
“We all said if it didn’t meet the county council objectives we should sell the estate,” he says. “We are specifically looking at new entrants into farming and entrepreneurial business plans.”
James and his team at the council worked with various bodies and individuals, including the Suffolk Agricultural Association, David Lawrence, principal at Easton and Otley College, and Nicola Currie, regional director at the Country Land and Business Association, to help it decide how best to achieve these aims.
Through its work with the industry, the council has been able to explore some of these wider issues and see how those in the sector can collaborate with the council to help towards some of the goals it is trying to achieve. For example, care farms may be a niche option in certain cases. Typically these social enterprises require only 20 or so acres, and fit well with some of the council’s wider objectives.
Alongside the development of new farmers and supporting a diverse range of business types with the council’s farm holdings, James believes that the council could also provide sites for mobile operators which would help its residents to have better coverage, as poor coverage has been an ongoing issue within some of Suffolk’s more rural areas.
But James also sees mainstream farming opportunities, working with egg, duck or pig producers, for example, to create vibrant commercial operations. The established company might help the start-up farm business by sharing its expertise or investing in the enterprise. It might mean splitting some units into smaller ones as and when the business plan fits.
“They would supply know-how and process and technology to enable these new tenants to not be starting with a blank sheet of paper,” he says.
“We are looking to set up some pilot units which might only be 50 acres with a solid building with the opportunity for building another building which would house the livestock unit for example.”
Working through the existing tenancy agreement in order to implement these new policies will take time. There are still some lifelong tenancies within the estate, and so it could take many years before they are fully implemented. The council is now looking at much shorter tenancies.
“We don’t farm, we attract tenants to farm,” explains James. “The key message is we are not offering tenancy for life. The tenancies to date have been too long. We are offering it as a stepping stone.”
There has to be some flexibility, says James, as the tenant will need to either invest his or her own capital or borrow some.
“It depends on the farm unit and everything else. I don’t think everything should be set in stone but I don’t think it should be so flexible you work round in circles,” he says. “These buildings usually have a payback of four years if you don’t draw a salary.”
David Lawrence of Easton and Otley College and Nicola Currie of the CLA have been working with the council on how to adapt its property portfolio to attract more young people into the industry, with the college set to provide ongoing support to young people taking up farm tenancies.
Nicola is enthusiastic about the shake-up, which she says will help the industry as a whole.
“Suffolk County Council is breaking the mould with its new plans for the county farms. This is an exciting project that will create real opportunities to get new entrants into our industry,” she said.
“The county council’s innovation is to be commended and the CLA is very pleased to be working with them in this excellent initiative. The mentoring of applicants by Easton & Otley College through the application process and afterwards as the new businesses grow is a step change in the way tenanted farms are managed, I wish I had had such support when I was starting out a young tenant farmer.”
It’s no use, says Brian Prettyman, the council dictating the future shape of holdings, so it has been asking people to come forward and tell it what they think would be helpful for them in running a business. That information will be used to help shape what the council is able to offer.
“The idea is that some of the farms we would split into small units which we could make available to aspiring entrepreneurs to try and encourage rural businesses. Rural businesses are both farming and farming related services, so things like vehicle maintenance and hubs for contract farming and all sorts of things really. It could be non-farming related businesses as well. We have got a range of property: some bare land, some farm buildings, some farm buildings not suitable for farm use but maybe of use for other purposes,” says Brian.
Overall, this strategy will make the whole council farm unit more profitable, believes James, with greater revenue and greater profit which in the long term which will enable the county council to have rents which are closer to the market rent. At the moment, while some rents are set at market value, some are at, say, 25% below market value.
“I think it comes back to what we are trying to do. We are trying to change the whole strategy of council farms so that they are now rural business units, and not arable farms,” says James.
The council launched a campaign at this year’s Suffolk Show to find aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking for premises and opportunities to start or develop their own rural enterprise. It continued its consultation over the summer and encouraged potential tenants to complete a questionnaire. The council says it will probably create units of between 10 and 50 acres in size, some with buildings and in some cases residential accommodation. It is likely that these will be available on leases with a maximum term of 10 - 15 years.
Suffolk County Council is due to release a support package for potential applicants to help them apply for tenancies and put a business plan together. Working in collaboration with Easton and Otley College, it has created a technical skills package which enables them to apply for match funding.
“We want to oil the wheels and get investment into county farms. We will put some capital in to leverage other capital. We are looking to get 10 tenancies out,” says James.
“More than land, we are providing support and know-how. We are not just handing over a tenant a lump of land and saying: ‘Go on fella, get on with it.’ We want to ensure he has the best start for his new business.”
The formal launch of expressions of interest takes place on October 1. In parallel to this, a Future Farming Group is being formed, which new tenants who sign up at the tenancy change date of October 17 can join. The group will guide the direction of County Farms and how it attracts and works with young people. The successful bidders for the next generation of county farms are expected to be announced at next year’s Suffolk Show.
“It’s not a quick fix any of this. I’m quite proud we have got this thinking off the ground. There are some positive comments,” says James.
COUNTY FARMS TENANT HARRY BROWN
Harry Brown has been a county farms tenant since 1997. Previous to that he was a farm manager.
“It was the only practical way to gain entry into farming in your own right,” he says.
He farms started farming about 90 acres at Capel St Mary in 2008, the same year a new barn was built there.
“I have got about 260 acres at Hadleigh. I grow rape and wheat a cereals rotation of combinable crops. I also farm for other farms on a contract farming basis - about 950 acres,” he says.