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Give farmers a right to buy

The Guardian ran an interesting piece yesterday by Peter Hetherington in support of state owned farms. But I wasn't convinced. County Council owned farms are often starved of capital investment (councils tend to have more pressing political priorities).  As was reported on this site Powys has sensibly offered a farm for sale which they had allowed to get into a terrible state.

State ownership means that tenant farmers are treated with the same inflexible, bureaucratic approach that council tenants in tower blocks will be familiar with.  County Farms are supposed to give opportunities to new farmers to get established with five-year tenancies - but this can mean the farmer being evicted and facing the difficulty of finding another farm.

According to a DEFRA reportfrom Sir Donald Curry last November, there are 50 county councils and unitary authorities that own and manage County Farms amounting to 237,725 acres let to 2,836 tenants. Collectivisation of agriculture on an astonishing scale. (The Ministry of Defence own even more farmland and whether they really need it all for training is another matter.)

One muddle in the debate is equating selling the farms with "concreting over the countryside." There is a difference between change of ownership and change of use. Sometimes both may be justified. Selling land for development is certainly more lucrative than selling it as farming land. There is a shortage of housing. Good design is critical to public acceptance. If the new developments resembled Poundbury rather than Milton Keynes a lot of the opposition would melt away.

But the huge quantity of land owned means that potential development can only account for a small fraction. Similarly holding land in case a new school or fire station is wanted cannot justify such holdings. Other arguments that state farms could provide a local supplier for school meals and educational visits are also misconceived. The vast majority of the land will remain for straight farming purposes, and the question is who owns it.

Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire have generally sold their farms to tenant farmers who now have the benefits of being owner occupiers. What does the National Farmers Union think? "It's a sensitive issue," a spokesman tells me. "Certainly it is a good thing for those farmers concerned but it reduces opportunities to for people leaving Agricultural College and wanting to get started."

You could make the same argument for the state owning an array of small businesses and making them availabe to people to run for five year periods to help them get started.

What will happen to those farms sold in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire? The owners will be able to farm them for as long as they wish. If their children wish to continue farming they will be able to inherit the business. Most people, certainly most Conservatives, would regard this as the most attractive outcome. But if they didn't have children wishing to take it on, then the farm could be sold or rented giving opportunities to those without a family background in farming.

I only wish that other county councils would follow the example of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in abandoning state feudalism.


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