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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.