This article was published in the Farmers Guardian following our session on the future of county farms, you can access the original here.
Labour’s Shadow Farming Minister David Drew has said councils should be banned from selling off county farms.
Mr Drew claimed putting a law in place to stop sell-offs was the only way to prevent ‘cash-strapped’ local authorities from getting rid of their estates. Speaking at an Agroecology All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting on the future of county farms in Westminster this week (April 29), he said:
“I do not think councils have sold for any reason other than they desperately need the money. I am afraid central government has got to get real. The only way we will ever stop this is if we pass legislation to say there is an obligation to provide some form of facility. We have to pass some legislation to stop what is a ludicrous loss.”
Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) chief executive George Dunn, who was also a panellist at the event, expressed concern about an outright ban on sales.
“I would not necessarily want local authorities to be shackled by saying you cannot sell anything. We would probably see people rushing to sell before it comes into statute, but secondly, it would stop sensible, strategic disposals for things like development or marriage value. What we need rather than ‘you cannot sell’ is ‘you must demonstrate best value for what you are doing’.”
Mr Dunn also hit out at politicians for suggesting the main purpose of county farms was to give new entrants a foothold on the farming ladder. He said:
“That is not what the Agriculture Act 1970 says. The Act says local authorities shall make it a general aim to offer opportunities to individuals to be farmers in their own account. Getting someone on one end of the conveyor belt and allowing them to drop off the other end is not a success, and sometimes we have seen county farms do that. We need to develop a system which encourages farmers to be there for the long-term, which is not just about new entrants but about progression.”
Asked how this objective could be achieved, Mr Dunn suggested councils should have twice as many progression units as new entrant units, and that they should encourage external landlords to offer long-term contracts to their tenants.