Farming News - Public land for public good: why we need to reimagine our county farms

Public land for public good: why we need to reimagine our county farms

27 May 2020
Frontdesk / Arable / Livestock

As we emerge from lockdown Graeme Willis: Agriculture lead at CPRE, the countryside charity takes a look at the role of council owned county farms.

A young woman in blue overalls lifts a large sack on a farm.

It is clear that our food supply is a lot more fragile than many of us thought. Think back only 6 weeks to queues outside of supermarkets, empty shelves and many vulnerable people going hungry. Our food system needs an overhaul. We believe that publicly owned land, and especially county farms, hold massive untapped potential that must be harnessed through the Agriculture Bill, to tackle the grave challenges facing farming and our food system today.  

CPRE, the countryside charity, has long argued that we urgently need greater diversity in our farming, management of land and food supply to drive environmental and financial resilience. Farming faces, many challenges: the dual climate and nature crises, a radical transition to funding to a public goods for public money model and unknown market conditions. If not clear before the pandemic, it should be now that there can be no return to business as usual. 

The use of public land is a less travelled road in the long debate around agricultural policy that provides a fresh perspective on how to face these challenges head on. We think public land and institutional owned land, such as The Crown Estate, the Church Commissioners, the MOD and the Duchy of Cornwall, has been overlooked for too long.

The Agriculture Bill provides a once in a generation opportunity to better harness the potential of this land, starting with council owned county farms. Done right, county farms could become the gold standard for how all land, be it public or private, should be managed - in partnership with nature and in lockstep with other natural solutions that soak in the carbon emissions fueling the climate emergency.  

But right now, our county farms are struggling.CPRE research last year revealed that half of all council-owned farms across England have been closed over the past 40 years. The remaining county farmland, as whole, still totals nearly 250,000 acres across England and Wales. This is equivalent to an area over half the size of Greater London. The question is - are we making best use of this land to tackle the mounting challenges faced by farming?  

To understand this, we are working with the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Shared Assets to explore the potential of county farms, as a signal part of the land we own, to help councils address the needs of their communities.  We hope to encourage councils to invest – using new funding from the UK government – in a wider, deeper vision for their estates for the long term and to end their hasty sell-off.  

As the Agriculture Bill makes its way through Parliament and into the House of Lords, we have tabled an amendment to put limits on the disposal of county farms and call on councils to develop new plans and purposes for their farm estates. If adopted, it would create more chances for new people to get into the sector, drive better education and innovation in environmentally sustainable farming and give local communities better public access to nature and the countryside owned and farmed in their name.

But ultimately, if we are to tackle the climate and nature crisis and secure our food supply, we must hold onto and invest in public land, and our county farms, instead of selling them off to the highest bidder.