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Lecturer suggests new options for council farms quandary

Posted 30 September 2014

Charles Cowap

Charles Cowap

A lecturer at Harper Adams University believes that Shropshire Council has more than just three options, when it comes to making a decision about selling its 24-farm estate. 

Land Management Lecturer, Charles Cowap, gives his thoughts on the current consultation.


"Shropshire Council seems to be the less than proud owner of a 410 hectare smallholdings estate, just over 1,000 acres. There are 24 farms, the largest at 90.01 acres and the smallest just 4.31 acres.

The council is seeking views on three options for the future of the estate. Option one is business as usual, which means opportunistic sales of vacant holdings on the open market, or to existing tenants, with little effort or expenditure on maintenance or positive management of the estate.

Option two is a straightforward sale of the entire estate on commercial terms to the highest bidder, as a whole or in lots.
 
Option three envisages a sale to an organisation which wishes to maintain it and secure access to farming for the future. The latter is the council’s preferred option, but where will an organisation like this be found? The consultation is open until October 31 on the council’s website.

The existing policy was set in 2005. Shropshire is finding itself short of cash so needs to prioritise spending in a way that has the most positive impact on the community. The estate itself has a backlog of repairs and there has more generally been a lack of investment in the estate.

But are these really the only options? And just how bad is the performance of the estate in terms of return on capital? Even with the neglect of essential maintenance it is likely that the growth in value of this estate has outpaced inflation and the broader investment market substantially in recent years. 

The Crown Estate for example, regularly posts capital growth of more than 10 per cent in its annual accounts. A target this high is unlikely to be realistic for the Shropshire farms, but it should nevertheless give pause for thought as to what more potential there may be in this estate.

So perhaps the list of options should also include some alternative development and business models. For example, how about letting some properties on long lease terms and taking most of the rent up front in the form of a premium? This can be a neat solution to large houses in a poor state of repair where the new tenant has the security of a very long lease against which to invest in substantial improvements to a house which he or she could not otherwise afford – similar thinking might work with the farmland as well.

Or what about alternative partnering arrangements – with occupiers or outside investors who might be able to bring an energetic economic vision to the future management of the estate? This might move the emphasis from solely ‘farming’ to a wider brief in the rural economy, but given the small size of the farms there seems to be everything to be said for that kind of thinking.

And finally what about the wider value of a 1,000 acre estate for all the natural services on which life ultimately depends – water cycling, carbon, pollination? These services are increasingly being recognised and valued in government policy, for example the recent National Ecosystem Assessment Follow On Report. It would be a shame if too narrow a list of options for the future of this estate led to the loss of important opportunities.”

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