Losing the plot

When we sell-off our public farmland, we miss our chance to use agriculture to benefit everyone.

Decades of UK government policy on public land has seen 2m hectares – an area 13 times the size of London – move from public to private ownership since the 1970s. Recent sell-offs of public land haven’t benefitted the public much at all, often resulting in land being bought by private housing developers who build poorly designed, unaffordable and car-dependent housing.

Providing affordable housing is just one vital use for land in the UK. Another is to grow the food that we eat in a way which restores the health of the natural environment. And public land can play a central role in this. The government should set aside land to help us deal with a changing climate and adapt our food production system. We need to rapidly cut our carbon emissions over the next few decades, and communities need to be protected from the impacts of our changing climate, like extreme weather events. We can’t do this without thinking about land, including how we use it for agriculture.

Land is not like other valuable things you can own. You can’t create more land – there’s only a limited supply of it – so it has to be divided up amongst competing interests. Who owns land determines how power is spread out or concentrated between people, and whether land is used to benefit communities.

In the UK, land ownership is extremely concentrated, and has been for the last 1000 years. In the 11th century, approximately 1% of the population owned 70% of the land. Today, not much has changed. Less than 1% of the population owns 50% of England, meaning the UK has one of the most concentrated private land-ownership systems in Europe. This concentrated ownership of something as fundamental as land is incompatible with a society that values fairness, equality and opportunity. It distorts land and housing markets, affecting the wider economy.

Over the last few decades the price of land has increased rapidly and the combination of expensive land and concentrated ownership has meant that elite landowners are the main decision makers for how land in the UK is used.

Who owns land determines how power is spread out”

Local authorities own around 1.3m acres of land in England – around 4%. Currently 44 councils in England own farms, which make up around 16% of all the land owned by councils. Known as county farms’, these cover over 200,000 acres – a vast tract of public land which has the potential to support the economic viability of local farming, promote innovative farming methods and deliver environmentally sustainable farming for the public good.

However, as a result of government policy of selling off public land to raise revenue, these farms are being lost from public ownership. The size of England’s county farms estate dropped by over 15,000 acres between 2010 and 2018. Losses from 2016 to 2019 make up 70% of the fall since 2010, and at the current rate of loss, English county farms will disappear in little over 40 years.

County farms are being sold at an increasing rate in part due to a long-standing ideological neoliberal bias in the government, which assumes that market forces will deliver more efficient outcomes than managing land in public ownership. In part the county farm sell-off is due to the impacts of austerity on local authorities, who have few other options to raise money to fund public services.

The farming profession is aging: the average age of farm holders in the UK is 59. It is difficult to recruit new young farmers into the industry, due to high start-up costs and low returns. Retirement rates are also low and there is a shortage of available land for new entrants. When farmers retire but do not pass farms onto their families, the land is often bought and absorbed into larger farms, meaning that now there are fewer, but larger, farms overall than a decade ago.

County farms play an important role in supporting the economic viability of local farming, providing an entry point for new farmers and developing and promoting innovative farming methods. When farmed sustainably, they can mitigate against the climate and nature emergencies, increase public access to nature and wildlife, deliver local economic resilience through sustainable farming jobs, and produce high quality, affordable food.

Public land is in a unique position to help overcome some of our most pressing challenges we face in the UK. Instead of selling it off, taking advantage of the numerous community ownership options so it can be farmed using nature-friendly agroecological methods must be a priority. Small scale, agroecological farms perform better in terms of producing nutritious food while supporting healthy soils, water and wildlife. County farms could play a significant role in an equitable, just and diverse future farming system, but only if their guiding mission is changed to ensure that public land is used for the provision of the public good.

We have been working with the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and Shared Assets, as well as other key organisations like the Land Workers Alliance, the Tenant Farmers Association and ACES to understand what has been happening to our county farms, and provide a vision for the future. We will be launching our vision for county farms in parliament tomorrow.

Image: iStock

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