The county smallholdings estate is generating an operating surplus of £16.1 million from more than 2,500 farms covering an area of 86,700 hectares let as smallholdings. In the words of the report from which these data are taken:
Whilst the data set is incomplete this report indicates that council farms continue to play an important role in the tenanted agricultural sector across England covering approximately 86,700 hectares of agricultural land providing approximately 2,583 holdings for around 2,081 tenant farmers. About sixty percent of the lettings are equipped farms (1,536 equipped holdings) and 49 lettings were made to new entrants during 2015/16. The report shows that the reporting smallholding authorities generated a revenue account net surplus of just over £9.5 million in 2015/16.
What more can be gleaned from the 66th Annual Smallholdings Report from Defra?
- This year’s report is much more comprehensive than the last one as 42 out of 43 authorities with smallholdings in England responded. They have a total of 89,360 ha in their farming estate, of which 86,700 ha are let as smallholdings in one way or another.
- Although the data are not complete, 41 authorities let 2,583 farms.
- The 39 authorities which provided rental information declared a rent of £23 million.
- Eighty-six hectares were added to the smallholding estate, but 1,048 hectares were lost.
- Total income for the estate was £26.5 million. Operational costs of £10.4 million left an operational surplus of £16.1 million.
- 115 new tenancies were granted and 174 tenancies came to an end. Forty-nine of the new tenancies were to new tenants, and 11 were ‘promotions’ within the estate.
- The estate includes 579 lifetime tenancies, 330 retirement tenancies and 1,172 Farm Business Tenancies (FBTs).
- Biggest smallholdings authority continues to be Cambridge by a considerable margin, with an estate of 13,190 ha and 181 let farms. At the other end of the scale is Medway, 30 ha and two farms.
Local authorities are encouraged to refer to guidance prepared by the Association of Chief Estates Officers and TRIG (Tenancy Reform Industry Group), Rural Estate Asset Management Planning Good Practice Guidance in formulating future plans.
The report covers the year up to 31 March 2016 and its production is an annual obligation on Defra under the Agriculture Act 1970. What pointers can we take from it:
- Local authority smallholdings are alive and well in many counties. A case study of Staffordshire for example points out an annual return of 7% from rent and capital growth before considering development sales.
- However the picture seems to vary a great deal from county to county. Some estates are vibrant, Staffordshire and Cambridgeshire for example, while others seem to be on a path of slow but inevitable decline (admittedly this comment cannot be attributed to the report itself). Recent events in Herefordshire have highlighted some of the issues which can arise.
- Does this raise a question as to the appropriate level of ownership, control and administration of ‘county’ farms? Is there a better way that this asset could be managed? ‘Lead’ authorities taking on more farms from those authorities with a very small estate to enable a more focussed approach to investment and future direction perhaps?