Half of council-owned farms have shut down, campaigners say as they call for rest to be protected

Helena Horton
Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire, run by Stephen and Lynn Briggs

Half of all council-owned farms across England have been closed down, as campaigners say authorities could profit from selling their produce.

The farms, set up at the end of the 19th century to encourage young people into farming, are in "terminal decline", according to the Campaign To Protect Rural England (CPRE).

Now, cash-strapped councils are shutting them down, losing over 15,000 acres of farmland in the last decade, with 60 per cent of this sold off in the last two years.

This is despite the fact campaigners argue that they have a "huge potential to generate income, provide an opportunity to promote innovative farming methods and deliver environmentally sustainable farming" as well as being carbon sinks, tackling the climate emergency. 

A new report from CPRE done in conjunction with the New Economics Foundation, Shared Assets and Who Owns England shows  more than 50 per cent of county farm estates have disappeared over the past 40 years.

Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire, run by Stephen and Lynn Briggs

It found that austerity, coupled with a sense that county farms are ‘a thing of the past’, and an unwillingness by some councils to innovate to develop new income streams or business models, is driving the decline of county farms.

Propositions for councils include setting up cafes on the farms, which could sell food made of locally-grown vegetables, as well as holding events and selling fresh fruit and vegetables in produce shops on site.

Whitehall Farm is an example of how these farms can make money, and will be featured on Countryfile tomorrow.

It is a 100 hectare farm owned by Cambridgeshire County Council and managed by Stephen Briggs on a 15-year tenancy, along with over 300 hectares of other land. 

Mr Briggs has interplanted arable crops with 4,500 apple trees that provide an income, protect soil and also growing crops from the risk of extreme weather as a result of the climate emergency. 

Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire, run by Stephen and Lynn Briggs 

Wildlife and birds such as tree sparrows, reed buntings, yellowhammers, English partridge and owls are also flourishing in the natural habitat farmland.

He and his wife Lynn have also opened Harvest Barn farm shop and café on their county farm site. The shop sells local and certified organic fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm as well as locally sourced lamb, beef and pork, cakes and biscuits, jams and preserves.

He said: "Thanks to the county farms system, I have been able to run my own farm and try an innovative and successful soils-based farming approach.

"The support I have received from my local county council has been invaluable.

"I’d like to see all local authorities encourage new entrants with fresh ideas and perspectives like myself to go into agriculture to keep this wonderful resource in the community as a vital asset.

"There are economic incentives for councils too as the rent from our county farm and its innovative diversifications goes straight back to the county council, helping fund front line services.”

Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire, run by Stephen and Lynn Briggs

Graeme Willis, agriculture lead at CPRE, the countryside charity, added: “Whitehall Farm is a great example of a county farm having an economic, environmental and social impact.

"Our research shows that the number of county farms in England alarmingly continues to plummet, at a time when these wonderful assets should be protected, and invested in, to ensure they’re available for future generations.

“CPRE is calling on the new government to introduce legislation to stop the sale of county farms and to give them a new purpose.

"A package of measures and new funding to enable councils to enhance, invest in their estates and better promote them is urgently needed.

"CPRE wants to see county farms recognised locally and nationally for their potential to address the climate emergency and deliver wider public benefits to meet the needs of their communities.”