How the extent of County Farms has halved in 40 years

Image: Detail from WW2 ‘bring in the harvest’ poster. This post is by Guy Shrubsole

The extent of County Farms in England has halved in the last 40 years, an investigation by Who Owns England can reveal.

County Farms are farms owned by Local Authorities and let out to young and first-time farmers, sometimes at below-market rents. They’re a vital ‘first rung on the farming ladder’ for newcomers to a sector that has high up-front capital costs: by providing the land and buildings, the public sector is helping get fresh blood into an industry where the average age of farmers is 60.

Yet the acreage of County Farms across England has plummeted from 426,695 acres in 1977 to just 215,155 acres in 2017, as data outlined below shows.

The revelation of the shocking decline in County Farms nationwide comes after Dorset County Council recently earmarked 6 of its County Farms for disposal and sale – 14% of its entire estate. This is despite the council officer’s report warning the sales would result in the loss of £95,000 in annual rents, and despite firm objections from the local branches of the Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) and Country Land & Business Association (CLA).

In his widely-praised Oxford Farming Conference speech this January, Environment Secretary Michael Gove spoke about equipping the “next generation of farmers” to grow better-quality food and do more to protect the environment post-Brexit. But the ongoing sale of County Farms runs precisely counter to that: undermining prospects for the next generation of farmers, just like the housing crisis is damaging prospects for young adults more broadly.

Charting the decline of County Farms

The origins of County Farms lie in the late-Victorian agricultural depression, during which widespread cries for land reform led radical Liberal MP Joseph Chamberlain (Theresa May’s political hero) to stand for election on the promise of “three acres and a cow” for landless tenant farmers. He went on to propose a solution whereby councils would buy up land and lease it out to small tenant farmers on cheap rents. A succession of government Acts in 18921908 and 1925 created County Farms, sometimes called County Smallholdings.

Joseph Chamberlain & GK Chesterton 3 acres

Left: Joseph Chamberlain. Right: GK Chesterton also later called for ‘three acres and a cow’

The area of land bought up by Local Authorities for County Farms skyrocketed between the turn of the century and the Second World War. “The smallholding movement is unique in modern agricultural history”, writes one historian. “It is the only occasion on which we see the promotion of small, rather than ever-larger farming units.” But since the end of the 1970s, thousands of acres of council-owned smallholdings have been sold off. Figures on County Farms are frustratingly hard to get hold of, particularly older data. But I’ve been able to piece together a time series of statistics showing the rise and decline of County Farms over the past 110 years, graphed below:

Decline in County Farms graph

Here’s the full dataset. The sources for these figures are as follows:

  • DEFRA’s Annual Smallholdings Report to Parliament 2007-2017. Annoyingly, DEFRA decided to change the scope of its reporting in 2014-15, only publishing area data for County Farms in a subset of Local Authorities – hence the sudden drop in acreage for those two years. However, they have since reverted to reporting on all Unitary and Smallholdings Authorities. Reports from 2009 to present are on (though annoyingly, not collected together on one webpage; here’s the most recent report). The 2008 report seems to be missing, but I tracked down the 2007 (57th) report here. Earlier reports are nowhere to be found online: I’ve made enquiries and you can only view them in the House of Commons library…
  • The Curry Review 2008 – was a government-commissioned review into the importance of County Farms. Cites figures for the area of the County Farms Estate in 2006 and 1984. Online here.
  • The Northfield Inquiry, 1979 – figure for 1977. This was a major government-commissioned inquiry into the ownership and acquisition of agricultural land. It’s not available online, but I have a printed copy of the report, bought off Amazon.
  • House of Commons PQs and Ministerial answers – various questions by MPs about the size of the County Farm Estate, with responses from Ministers, can still be found on Hansard. Source of the figures for 1974, 1936, 1910 and 1907.
  • This Farmers Weekly article is the source of the acreage figure for 1926.

Lastly, a very useful source I’ve used to corroborate these figures and the overall trend is this 2012 PhD thesis by Nick Prince, which charts the decline in total area of the County Farms Estate, and even steeper fall in the number of holdings, up to 2010. Here’s Nick’s summary graph (NB the lefthand scale is in hectares, not acres):

Nick Prince 2012 - County Farm Estate area & no of holdings

Mapping the decline of County Farms – 3 case studies

Headline stats are one thing – but it’s also now possible to map the precipitous decline in County Farms in 3 counties, showing graphically how much land has been lost. Huge thanks to my friend Ben for helping track down some of these maps.

1) Northumberland. Northumberland County Council have an online map of land owned, and formerly owned, by the council. Analysing the data underpinning this map using QGIS shows that Northumberland CC have sold off 9,500 acres of land (over an unspecified period of time), including nearly 5,000 acres of Smallholdings / County Farms, 367 acres classified as farmland, and 135 acres of allotments. The map below, showing the southern part of the county, displays land sold off in red, with land retained by the council shown in green. County Farms near Hexham, Riding Mill and Heddon-on-the-Wall have all been disposed of.


2) Buckinghamshire. Despite being one of the wealthy home counties, Buckinghamshire still felt sufficiently squeezed by austerity to sell off a lot of its County Farms (see these reports from 2010 & 2011). They, too, have an online map of all the land they own and what they’ve sold. Again, using QGIS to interrogate the data, here’s a map highlighting the County Farms (and other land) sold off by Bucks Council in red (retained in green):

Bucks sales red

3) Norfolk. Even Norfolk Council’s County Farms Estate, one of the largest remaining in England, has declined greatly from its heyday. The map directly below is from an academic study of Norfolk’s County Farms, mapping their extent in 1926, when they covered 27,479 acres – rising to 30,000 acres by the time of WW2. The second map shows the current County Farms estate, which has almost halved from its peak, to 16,739 acres in 2016. Present-day mapping data published by the council here.


Norfolk County Farms 1926


Norfolk County Farms 2016

Enough is enough – halt the sale of County Farms

The decline of the County Farms Estate mirrors wider trends in English agriculture over the past half-century, with small private farms declining and being swallowed up by ever-larger industrial farm units. Indeed, England has recently seen the rise of the megafarm. Is this the future of farming post-Brexit? If it is, it doesn’t match Michael Gove’s welcome rhetoric about creating sustainable, healthy farms fit for the 21st century. Millennials need affordable housing; young farmers need County Farms.

Fundamentally, the problem is central government cuts to local authority budgets. That much becomes clear from the long-term national statistics reviewed above: the period of decline has coincided with the era of privatisation, cuts and centralisation ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s, and accelerated under the austerity budgets of the Coalition and current government. It’s vital the Environment Secretary intervenes to reverse this trend. A word in the ear of Phillip Hammond and James Brokenshire, to protect council budgets for County Farms and issue a Ministerial direction halting sales, could go a long way.

Enough is enough. It’s time to halt the sale of County Farms and chart a new course for agriculture in England.

Campaign groups calling for a halt to County Farm sales

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