The Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) has welcomed a new report from the countryside charity, CPRE, which backs its call for a major overhaul of Government policy towards County Council smallholding estates.
A central recommendation from the CPRE report is to require local authorities to submit management plans for scrutiny to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.
TFA chief executive, George Dunn said “The TFA has been campaigning for tighter controls on County Farms for many years and welcome CPRE’s important intervention to this debate. To date, it has been too easy for local authorities to dispose of their farm estates without proper scrutiny to ensure that they are obtaining best value for Council Tax payers. Often, we see bad financial management within local authorities lead to poor decisions being made to dispose of county farms without proper justification. This has got to stop.”
A recent example of poor practice was Herefordshire County Council, which, in 2017, took the decision to dispose of its 4200 acre estate. This was despite its own independent advisers and Scrutiny Committee determined the best value for council taxpayers in Herefordshire would have been better achieved through retention and rationalisation of the estate.
“The TFA has no objection to local authorities taking the opportunity of making strategic disposals at high value for development or other non-agricultural use. Such profit can be used both to meet the costs of front-line services provided by the Local Authority and investment in the retained estate, which may include the purchase of additional land. It is the unhealthy and unrestrained ‘dash for cash’ that pervades local authorities who find themselves in financial difficulties that we must avoid. At the end of the day, farms are income earning assets from which value can be harvested over time rather than mined and exhausted. I would challenge any local authority to show that it has improved its long-term financial position through such fire sales,” said Mr Dunn.
Local authorities should follow good practice in the management of their estates. There is guidance available endorsed by many farming, landowning and professional organisations.
“Unfortunately, the guidance can be ignored. We need the newly elected Government to ensure that it makes it a requirement for local authorities to demonstrate they are following good practice when it reintroduces the Agriculture Bill as part of the new Queens Speech,” said Mr Dunn.