Parliament December 2015

DEFRA faces the largest budget cuts of any government department since 2009, Catherine Paice reports

DEFRA assets are almost certain to face the chop as the department scrabbles to carve more fat from its activities. The county farms portfolio is under renewed pressure from cash-strapped local authorities. What, Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) wanted to know, was the cost of maintaining DEFRA properties?

In a written reply, farm minister George Eustice (Con, Camborne & Redruth) said DEFRA held 133 properties on behalf of the civil estate, including offices, laboratories, farms, foot-and-mouth burial sites and contaminated land. “Increasingly space in these properties is shared with executive agencies and NDPBs [Non-Departmental Public Bodies] within the DEFRA network, as well as other government departments, their executive agencies and NDPBs, and commercial tenants,” Eustice said.

Anyone wanting more detail was directed to DEFRA’s annual accounts for 2014-15, which run to 148 pages and are largely inscrutable to mere mortals. Extractable figures include: £310 million capital employed in land and buildings during the year – the same as the previous year but 27% less than five years ago; a net book value of £88.2m for ‘land’ (close to 20,000 acres at a modest £5,000/acre on average) and £322.9m for buildings excluding dwellings, plus another £22.8m in dwellings.

The accounts allude several times to “continued estate rationalisation” to save costs, and it seems unlikely that property will escape this. Chancellor George Osborne’s November Spending Review also stated that the MoD will be forced to sell 30% of the land it owns (about 600,000 acres, excluding ‘rights’ over other land) as part of £11 billion in savings.

Meanwhile, what Mr Osborne described as the “biggest housebuilding programme of any government since the 1970s”, would include 160,000 homes “to be built on newly released public land”.

A National Audit Office report revealed last week that senior level bickering, poor leadership and too much focus on IT procurement has seen rural payments programme costs rise to 40% over budget (from a projected £154m to an estimated £215m).

Back to farming, and a written question from Sir Nicholas Soames (Con, Mid Sussex) asked for an update on the state of dairy farming. Mr Eustice said the Government hoped the new £19.2m EU support package (just under 0.176p/litre in a one-off payment) “will offer some relief”.

Nick Smith (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) wanted to know how much land was occupied by solar panel arrays. As at June 2015, there were 432 Renewables Obligation ground-mounted solar installations across all land use types, Mr Eustice replied, compared with 227 a year earlier – an increase of 90% in a single year.

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