Western Morning News
Is this the way to keep creaking ship afloat?
In an open letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, Bridgwater and West Somerset Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger discusses the subject of countryside economics
DA bit of a bleak midwinter all round, I’m afraid, but in offering you my best wishes for the New Year I am looking ahead with a degree of confidence to a somewhat less fraught 12 months.
And I sincerely hope that our farmers can adapt to the new way of doing business with the Continent as rapidly and as successfully as possible, though clearly there are going to be one or two deep ruts to negotiate in the early stages.
I would also like to believe that farm incomes will soon start to climb back to somewhere not unadjacent to the level they should be at – though it is worth noting that depressed farm incomes are not a uniquely British problem: many of our European colleagues are facing equally, if not more challenging financial disadvantage at the moment.
On which subject my attention was drawn recently to the fact that the National Trust was offering the tenancy of one of its local farms with the proviso that any new incumbent would have to have some other form of employment providing a source of income – on the basis that the farm wouldn’t deliver enough profit to live on.
I find this totally monstrous and a succinct resume of everything that is wrong with the National Trust today. Essentially the tenant would be going out to work solely to subsidise the activities of the trust.
The obvious thing to do under such circumstances would be to reduce the rent to a level which realistically reflected what the average farmer would be able to achieve by way of turnover on the holding.
Sadly that is not now the way the trust works any more, nor has it been for some years. Time was when it adopted the same avuncular, forbearing attitude to its tenants as had been displayed by the landowners who originally owned its various estates; now it has gained a reputation for being a hard-nosed, even ruthless landlord and one not averse to pulling the odd stroke – such as encouraging a tenant who was struggling to pay the rent to invest in a butchery to add value to his livestock on his side of the farm gate, then shoving up the rent because the value of the holding had increased.
There was of course the weeding out some years back of a lot of middle managers who did little more than drive round in tweed suits and Range Rovers but the trust is a still a creaking ship; badly run and with a portfolio of properties with hideously high running costs – hence the need, when visitor numbers fall, to come down on its tenants for an extra wad of notes by way of rent.
All the time of course, playing around with projects like reintroducing beavers – as it has done on Exmoor. A desirable experiment to run perhaps, but hideously expensive and instigated without any kind of cost/benefit analysis as far as I can see. Meanwhile, all I have observed over the last 12 months is the trust running round wringing its hands and wondering how to purge itself of the notional guilt of owning properties which may well have been built or acquired using proceeds from the slave trade. Well here’s my answer: if they are that much of an embarrassment get rid of them. Let a few private developers come in and rescue the crumbling stately homes to help meet the growing demand for bijou country maisonettes. The trust’s overheads would fall, net income would rise – and it would no longer have to insist on anyone having to do two jobs in return for the privilege of looking after one of its farms.