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Smallholdings estates

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 5th March 2020.

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‘(1) Every smallholdings authority which immediately before the commencement of Part 1 of this Act holds any land for the purposes of smallholdings shall review the authority’s smallholdings estate and shall, before the end of the period of eighteen months beginning with the commencement of Part 1 of this Act, submit to the Minister proposals with respect to the future management of that estate for the purposes of providing—

(a) opportunities for persons to be farmers on their own account;

(b) education or experience in environmental land management practices;

(c) opportunities for increasing public access to the natural environment and understanding of sustainable farming; and

(d) opportunities for innovation in sustainable land management practices.

(2) For the purposes of this section, “smallholdings authority” has the same meaning as in section 38 of the Agriculture Act 1970.’—

This new clause would require local authorities to review their smallholdings and submit proposals for future management to provide opportunities to extend access to farming, education, and innovation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 26—Smallholdings estates: land management—

‘(1) A smallholdings authority which immediately before the commencement of Part 1 of this Act holds any land for the purposes of smallholdings shall review the authority’s smallholdings estate and shall, before the end of the period of eighteen months beginning with the commencement of Part 1 of this Act, submit to the Secretary of State proposals with respect to the future management of that estate for the purposes of—

(a) providing opportunities for persons to be farmers on their own account;

(b) providing education or experience in environmental land management practices;

(c) providing opportunities for increasing public access to the natural environment and understanding of sustainable farming;

(d) contributing to a mitigation of climate change, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,

(e) providing support for innovative food production techniques (including techniques which do not involve management of land), and

(f) providing opportunities for innovation in sustainable land management practices.

(2) No land held by a smallholdings authority as a smallholding immediately before commencement of Part 1 of this Act is to be conveyed, transferred, leased or otherwise disposed of otherwise than—

(a) in connection with the purposes listed in subsection (1); and

(b) in accordance with proposals submitted under subsection (1).

(3) For the purposes of this section, “smallholdings authority” has the same meaning as in section 38 of the Agriculture Act 1970.’.

This new clause would limit the disposal of smallholdings (“county farms”) by local authorities and would require local authorities to review their holding and submit proposals for future management to provide opportunities to extend access to farming, education, and innovation.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

This revisits something that we discussed when the previous Agriculture Bill Committee met, but there have been some positive moves from the Government in respect of county farms since then. I am pleased that there have been quite a few indications of support, but we could do more, which is why I have tabled the new clause.

County farms are an undervalued national asset, and they could play a significant role in the future of UK farming. I have the support of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Sustain and the Landworkers Alliance for the new clause, which is aimed at rejuvenating the county farms project and improving the information that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs holds on the estate. It would require councils to submit a report to the Secretary of State within 18 months of this Act’s becoming law, saying how they would make best use of their smallholdings to support new entrants to farming. We have heard, and it is generally accepted, that the price of land in particular can act as a real deterrent to new entrants.

The new clause also looks at promoting sustainable land management practices, sharing knowledge of those practices, and increasing public access to the natural environment and farming. The new clause is needed because there has been a steep decline in the county farm estate over the past 40 years, and that sell-off appears to be continuing. Between 2010 and 2018, the size of England’s county farm estate fell by more than 15,000 acres, with 58% of that sold between 2016 and 2018. If we want to reverse that trend, it is clear that we need a fresh approach, rather than business as usual, and I hope that the new clause will kick-start that.

There was a session—I think it was of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, but I get confused sometimes, because we also discussed this at the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming—where Cambridgeshire County Council was spoken of. It does really good work on this front. Its estate generates a substantial income for the council of more than £4 million each year, and since 2009, the 109 new tenants who have joined the estate have an average age of 30, which is half the UK average.

We spoke earlier—I think it was when we were talking about de-linked payments and other things—about the average age of farmers in this country and how we really need to bring a new generation on board. County farms seem to be doing that in Cambridgeshire. The estate is also supporting a pioneering agroforestry farmer, Stephen Briggs.

At the very least, I hope the new clause will encourage councils to look favourably on including enhanced management and environmental obligations as part of the tender process and management. This is about not only allowing access to land through the county farm movement, but encouraging people to farm in a certain way. CPRE’s recent report on county farms highlighted the fact that a number of councils already view their estates as a crucial lever in responding to the climate emergency.

As I said at the beginning, we have had some promising words from the Government, but we have not had action yet, and the Bill is still completely silent on this. The now Secretary of State told us in the Agriculture Bill Committee back in October 2018 that he was considering whether to use funds under the productivity strand of the Bill to refresh the model. In January 2019, I chaired a session at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, interviewing the then Secretary of State on stage. It must be said that all the promises he made then went down very well.

One of those promises was to announce a new package of financial support for county farms in the coming months. He reaffirmed that promise in a letter to the EFRA Committee in March 2019, stating his desire to

“create a financial incentive for local authorities who want to invest in their council farms”.

In September, that promise was repeated, this time in response to a written question that I asked the current Secretary of State.

While I warmly welcome the statement in the “Future for Food, Farming and the Environment” policy statement published last week that the Department

“will offer funding to councils…who want to invest in creating new opportunities for new-entrant farmers”,

when can we expect some firm detail on the timetable of financial assistance that will be offered? In the meantime, based on the language in the policy statement, I see no reason that the new clause, which is designed to encourage new entrants and sustainable farming, would not help the Government to achieve their desired outcome.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East for tabling the new clause and look forward to working with her on how we can support smallholding authorities to invest in, and commit to, their county farms. We want to help them to provide more opportunities for new entrant farmers and to continue to offer the wider environmental and public benefits.

I am concerned that the new clauses would constrain smallholding authorities’ ability to manage their estates effectively and would create an additional administrative burden. Rather than legislating, I would prefer to work collaboratively with smallholding authorities. We want to support them to manage their estates so that they can provide more opportunities for new farmers and existing tenants, as well as for the benefit of the wider public.

I hope that the hon. Lady is assured by the document published last week and that she will continue to talk to me. We will continue to talk to smallholding authorities about how we can take things forward. I therefore ask her to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

New clause 26 is broadly similar to new clause 5, which my hon. Friend has just moved. She spoke powerfully about the plight of our county farms. She did mention, of course, successes in Cambridgeshire. I rarely find reason to praise Cambridgeshire County Council, but on this occasion, I think that it is doing good work.

As farms owned by local authorities that can be let out at below-market rents—I suspect that there is agreement on this—they are a vital means to encourage young and first-time farmers into the sector. They provide a key way in for those who have not had the good fortune to inherit or are lacking the capital required to buy or rent. As well as offering a sustainable income stream for local authorities, these farms have been recognised as particularly well placed to deliver locally driven social and environmental goods, ranging from tree planting and local education initiatives on farming to public procurement of locally produced food.

As we have heard, however, county farms have been left in serious long-term decline. An investigation last year by Who Owns England? showed that the acreage has halved in the past 40 years—first driven by the privatisation drive and cuts to county budgets and powers under the Thatcher and Major Governments, and by the austerity agenda in recent times. Cash-strapped local authorities making difficult decisions have been forced to take cost-saving measures, and 7% of England’s county farms estate was sold off between 2010 and 2018, with three quarters of all smallholding authorities having sold parts of their estate.

As we have heard, some authorities, such as my own in Cambridgeshire, have recognised the importance of county farms and have increased the number of acres in the past decade. Interestingly, they are now bringing in a sustainable income for the authorities. I am told that, in Cambridgeshire’s case, that is in excess of £4 million each year. However, the situation is not so good elsewhere. I am told that Herefordshire, for instance, has sold many of its county farms; there has been a decline of 89%.

The Government’s recent policy document on farming for the future mentions that funding will be offered to councils with county farm estates, but we still have no clear detail on how much that would be and whether it would be sufficient. It is rather surprising that in a flagship Bill on reforming our agricultural system—

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Are there any examples of where local authorities have sold the farms but to the tenants so that they can become owner-occupiers—a sort of right-to-buy scheme —or are the farms being sold off outside the sphere of those tenants?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I do not know the answer, but I am happy to go away and look for it, because that sounds like an interesting idea.

Let me explain what our worry is. We are here discussing major, flagship legislation for the future of the sector, and to us it would seem sensible to ensure that there was provision for this very important part of the sector, particularly when there was such an opportunity, through the local authorities, to deliver a range of public goods, including land management practices that mitigate climate change; public access; and even the promotion of innovative food production systems, such as vertical farms or city farms. If local authorities were to build into their management practices for their smallholdings the aims of aiding nature recovery and carbon sequestration and of promoting biodiversity, county farms could be a very useful tool for local communities, particularly in areas such as mine, where we have such interest in environmental issues being promoted.

It is important that we stop the loss and refresh the purpose of our county farms. I am not sure that that makes it easier for local authorities, because they are making difficult decisions, but it would make it harder for them to make that particular decision.

Last December, a report for CPRE by the New Economics Foundation, Who Owns England? and Shared Assets looked at what would need to be done to revive our county farms. The report said:

“The government should protect the future of the county farm estate by legislating for a ministerial lock on their disposal, and a rejuvenated purpose statement. A forthcoming Agriculture Act should safeguard county farms from extensive disposal by making it incumbent on councils to submit a report to the Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This should detail how they plan to best manage their county farms to deliver on a range of stipulated social and environmental purposes, and - if they wish to sell off county farms - how doing so accords with these purposes.”

That is exactly what our new clause would achieve. I invite the Government to support the new clause because they believe in the importance of county farms and they now have the opportunity to put that in the Bill.

As with new clause 5, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, our new clause 6 would require any authority with smallholdings to submit proposals on how they expected to manage their estate to provide opportunities for new farmers, provide educational and environmental land management practices, ensure opportunities for increasing public access to land and understanding of sustainable farming, and provide support for improved food productions, such as vertical or city farms.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 2:15 pm, 5th March 2020

What does the hon. Gentleman think about the example of Staffordshire County Council? When selling off farms, the council has given tenants the first opportunity to buy, but if that has not happened it has sold the farms with sitting tenants. The tenants continue their tenancies, but the council can use the money to spend on other priorities, such as schools, getting homeless people into housing and all the other local authority priorities.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I appreciate what the right hon. Member says. We are not seeking to stop that kind of process. We are trying to make it more difficult for councils to respond to funding cuts by selling county farms, which in some ways I do not criticise because they face difficult choices. If that practice is not stopped, then, frankly, it will go on happening, unless there are significant changes in funding for local authorities.

In recognition of the key role that local authorities can play in incentivising these farms to be environmental public goods, we would also require local authorities to submit proposals on how they intended to manage their smallholdings in a way that contributed to those various public goods, including the mitigation of climate change and reducing gas emissions. As discussed, our new clause would also limit the continued disposal of farms by stipulating that no local authority smallholding would need to have its ownership transferred unless that was clearly in accordance with those purposes.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have already responded fairly fully to the hon. Member for Bristol East and I feel that the Labour Front-Bench amendment is strikingly similar. I have said all I need to say on this subject.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I hope we can continue the dialogue about county farms and that we can see some concrete action from the Government. Given what the Minister has said, for once I will take her at her word that she has leapt upon this and I will not push the measure to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.