A staggering 50% of all council-owned farms across England have been closed and sold off, according to a new research paper by the Campaign to Protest Rural England (CPRE) New Economics Foundation, Shared Assets and Who Owns England? on December 16.

Council-owned farms, dwindling in number by 2019, are the last vestige of tenant farming activities initially created in the 19th century to encourage working-class people into farming.

Now, according to the CPRE councils across England are selling off the valuable assets with more than 15,000 acres of farmland lost in the past ten years alone, with another 60% sold off in the past two years.

The report notes that austerity, along with the sense that farms are no longer viable and valuable investments are the leading causes of the sell-off.

The CPRE suggests the UK government ensures more must be done to protect the rural environment and the farmer-land connection.

Fast declines in the last decade

The ruling Conservative party comes in for criticism in this regard, “However, with the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the onset of austerity, the sell-off of County Farms appears to have accelerated once again.”

Areas of the country are worse affected by the sell-offs, including the south where the pressure to use the land for housebuilding and industry has led to more significant declines in council ownership.

One county council, in particular, is damaged by the new report, with Hertfordshire County Council releasing some 89% of its smallholdings and farms to the private sector. Hertfordshire’s proximity to London is likely the leading cause.

Lincolnshire, where demand for agricultural land remains high saw a limited 6% decline in council ownership of farms.

“Further analysis of the fall in acreage from 2010 to 2018 shows that the rate of disposal accelerated dramatically from 2016-2018 with sales in Herefordshire, Somerset, Cheshire West and Chester and Cumbria contributing most to this,” the report adds.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats from 2010 onwards have been seen as the most significant drivers in the move as councils across England look for ways to raise funds as austerity bites.

“Compared to 2010 – 2016 disposals rose from around 1,100 acres pa to over 4,500 acres pa for these last two years; over half of the total fall since 2010 occurred from 2016-2018.”

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