Land is the key

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month - Si­mon McEwan, Edi­tor

What does the fu­ture hold for farm­ing and small­hold­ing in Bri­tain? Quite apart from the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing Brexit, and the threat from dis­eases such as bird flu and African swine fever, there are two other key is­sues: at­tract­ing young peo­ple into farm­ing, and mak­ing land avail­able at a rea­son­able price. The last two are con­nected of course. There are surely thou­sands of wannabe small­hold­ers who would love to get started, but sim­ply can’t af­ford to buy any land. One novel idea has been put for­ward by the Eco­log­i­cal Land Co-op, which has al­ready es­tab­lished sev­eral low-cost small­hold­ings. It has ap­pealed to farm­ers to do­nate small parcels of land to cre­ate clus­ters of af­ford­able small­hold­ings ( see page 90).

It is very clear that farm­ing is cry­ing out for young re­cruits. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent DE­FRA fig­ures, the av­er­age age of farm­ers in Bri­tain is now 59. Just 13 per cent are un­der the age of 45. That is a shock­ing statis­tic, and rad­i­cal pro­pos­als are needed to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion.

As re­gards the price of agri­cul­tural land, that seems to climb ever higher. One fac­tor here is that spec­u­la­tors buy up land. Once it has plan­ning per­mis­sion for de­vel­op­ment, the value in­creases dra­mat­i­cally. One novel plan to break this cy­cle is to cre­ate a Sov­er­eign Land Trust to pro­vide land for cheap housing and is­sue com­pul­sory pur­chase or­ders if nec­es­sary

A fur­ther is­sue is that of ed­u­ca­tion. So many schoolchil­dren, es­pe­cially in cities, seem woe­fully ig­no­rant of the ba­sics of farm­ing. In­ter­est­ingly, one MP has re­cently pro­posed that there should be a GCSE in agri­cul­ture. This would at least help some young peo­ple on the road to a fu­ture in farm­ing, es­pe­cially if ac­tion is taken to find them some af­ford­able land to get started! How about it, Mr Gove and col­leagues?

De­vel­op­ers could be forced to sell land to the state more cheaply un­der rad­i­cal plans be­ing con­sid­ered by Labour.

The party is ex­am­in­ing pro­pos­als to ban housing firms from hik­ing the price of land once it has plan­ning per­mis­sion.

A Labour gov­ern­ment could cre­ate an English Sov­er­eign Land Trust, which would have the power to is­sue com­pul­sory pur­chase or­ders that force own­ers of larger, un­de­vel­oped agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial land to sell sites at their pre­plan­ning per­mis­sion value.

The party looked at re­search show­ing the price of land can soar from £ 21,000 to £ 2.1mil­lion a hectare if it switched from farm­ing to res­i­den­tial use.

Labour says the scheme could pour funds into cheaper housing, “rather than let­ting pri­vate landown­ers ben­e­fit from this wind­fall gain – and mak­ing ev­ery­one else pay for it”.

The Coun­try Land and Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion said: “The best way to tackle the housing cri­sis is to re­move the mas­sive bar­ri­ers that still stand in the way of pri­vate landown­ers who want to in­vest in pro­vid­ing, usu­ally small, housing schemes in ru­ral ar­eas. Th­ese in­clude un­cer­tain­ties of nav­i­gat­ing the chaotic and un­der­re­sourced plan­ning sys­tem and a pe­nal tax sys­tem that too of­ten dis­in­cen­tives pos­i­tive in­vest­ment. Com­pul­sory pur­chase of land should only ever be a last re­sort and in prac­tice it is far more likely to be small fam­ily farms that suf­fer.” * The Eco­log­i­cal Land Co-op has ap­pealed for land do­na­tions: see page 90


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