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Smallholdings estates

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

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 2:00 pm, 5th March 2020

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—