Are smallholders in Britain getting sidelined? Kim Stoddart investigates
Does rural policy in Britain favour the landowning elite and commercial interests rather than the small-scale grower and smallholder? The Land Workers’ Alliance believes it does, and recently launched a manifesto calling for change.
The LWA says it wants to prevent the countryside becoming the preserve of the affluent who live but do not work there. Written in conjunction with The Land magazine, and supported by the Family Farmers’ Association, the manifesto challenges what it sees as the bias dominating rural policy.
It says small scale producers and active landowners are not being valued or represented and it addresses many issues, including housing and rural employment as well as land ownership and agriculture.
What is the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA)?
The LWA (www.landworkersalliance.org.uk) describes itself as a membership-based organisation made up of small-scale producers and family farmers who use more sustainable methods to produce food, fuel, fibre and flowers. It also wants to highlight the role its members play in providing food security, environmental stewardship, livelihoods, strong communities, animal welfare and high-quality affordable food. Membership costs start at £25 a year for individuals.
1 Too many barriers
The LWA argues that there are too many barriers faced by those wanting to work on the land. It says that, within the existing planning system, many people are being prevented from working the land to provide healthy, fresh produce, or face major challenges doing so.
Ed Hamer, an LWA member, is involved in Chagfood, a small enterprise based on the north east of Dartmoor National Park which supplies weekly seasonal veg boxes to up to 90 local households. In 2010, the National Park Authority (NPA) gave the project planning permission for two garden sheds and three polytunnels.
Then, in 2013, as Chagfood grew, they took on additional growing land on a nearby farm which had fertile land but no infrastructure. Ed said: “For the past three years the market garden has been effectively operating from a canvas tent whilst trying to obtain planning permission for a small (12m x 5m) timber-framed barn. Despite providing a valuable service to the local community and directly contributing to several of the National Park Authority’s core objectives relating to employment, local economy and the environment, the NPA has twice refused planning permission on the grounds of ‘detrimental landscape impact’.”
Thus far, both planning applications have received scores of letters of support from the local community, the full support of the parish council and not a single letter of objection.
Following the last refusal in the spring of 2015, Chagfood faced the choice of appealing the decision whilst continuing to operate from the tent, or going ahead and building the barn they desperately needed without permission.
They opted for the second option and their barn went up in January this year. They are now in the process of submitting a retrospective planning application, which will be refused and then appealed. There is a small chance that permission could be granted on the appeal. If it is not, however, then the NPA will begin enforcement proceedings and the barn will have to be dismantled.
Ed said: “The local authority’s central argument against granting permission is that the barn has a ‘detrimental landscape impact as it is not clustered around other buildings and is isolated in the landscape’. We have identified scores of other isolated agricultural buildings which have been granted permission by the authority. The main difference appears to be that these other buildings are for livestock enterprises as opposed to horticulture. There is a growing concern among residents of the National Park that the authority has a subjective planning agenda that favours large-scale farming enterprises and does not give the impression of impartiality.”
2 Planning problems
There are too many challenges faced by small scale producers wanting to live on the land where they work, says the LWA.
According to its manifesto, people often find themselves in breach of planning regulations in caravans, outbuildings or similar structures. It argues that the planning system here is more regulated than in other parts of Europe, so local authorities are under a lot more pressure. It claims there is a lack of consistency which throws up major challenges for those wanting to live and work on a small amount of land.
Country View Farm, Pemrokeshire
Deborah Horrell runs Country View Farm near Fishguard. She and her husband, Bill, have been trying for the last six years to secure planning permission, initially for a static caravan and then for a log cabin to live in at their 16 acre plot. Bill, who has cancer and walks with a stick, is about to undergo more chemotherapy and the small caravan they have been living in is now totally unsuitable for him. Yet the couple are in no position to consider relocating because Deborah, who effectively acts as his carer, has to work such long hours tending to their sheep, pigs and chickens.
“We have spent a fortune over the last six years on planning applications and professional advice – more than £20,000,” said Deborah. She feels they have been very unfairly treated by the local planning authority. “I feel cheated by our experiences, utterly cheated. I hear of others nearby who have been given planning when we haven’t. I’ve been told we’re not earning enough income to get planning permission for a log cabin. If we had more land we’d probably get permission. I really don’t know what we are doing to do.”
3 Lack of subsidies
Small-scale farmers should be able to receive subsidies like their larger-scale counterparts, says the LWA.
As things stand, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies, which are designed to protect land-owners from market forces, are only given to farms of 5 hectares (12 acres) or more. It was 1 hectare (2.47 acres) until October 2013 when the system changed. This change meant that 17,000 small-scale farmers were excluded.
The Land Workers’ Alliance says: “Now the bulk of the CAP subsidies, currently worth £3 billion, go to a diminishing number of landowners, around 40,000, who are estimated to own half of all the land in Britain.” The LWA calls for these subsidies to be capped at €150,000 per individual farmer so that taxpayers’ money is redirected to smaller and active farmers and away from richer landowners.
4 ‘Hobby farmers’
Smallholders and small-scale growers are not taken seriously, says the LWA.
Ed Hamer says: “The likes of DEFRA see anyone farming on less than 5 hectares as a hobby farmer. They just don’t take us seriously at all. We need more evidence of the role small-scale producers provide but, as things stand, the report that DEFRA carries out each year to access this only includes farms of 20 hectares or more. We really need to be able to prove the contribution we are making.”
5 Not easy for young people
A younger generation needs to be able to get into farming, says the LWA. It says it must be made easier for young people to gain access to land and build knowledge and skills to farm it in a sustainable manner.
Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land magazine and co-author of the LWA manifesto, said: “Family farms are declining in numbers, commercial farms are becoming larger and increasingly corporate, entry into the industry is increasingly difficult and the average age of farmers is worryingly high.”
The organisation is campaigning to facilitate access to land for those who want to farm, and for more effective land distribution. Supporting access to land in this way promotes small scale farming which in turn leads to social equality and food security, says the LWA. Ed said: “At the moment the young farmers’ scheme is only available to families of existing famers. It is too exclusive. A younger generation of wannabe farmers are effectively being excluded.”
Rebecca Laughton,Prospective land buyer
Rebecca Laughton, also an LWA member, first wanted to buy agricultural land in 2003, when it cost just £2,000 per acre. She wasn’t in a position to do so financially until about 2011, by which time it was selling at more than £11,000 per acre.
“Even then, to get the land I wanted, I had to buy with two other people, as it was 17 acres and I couldn’t afford the whole price of £200,000,” she said. “After two years of trying to work together, we found that our objectives were not complementary and the land could not be divided, due to having planning permission for a barn and stables based on permitted development rights. I found I was left only with the option of having a 6 acre field with no opportunity to even get planning permission for a tool shed. As I couldn’t plan a horticultural business with so little chance of developing the necessary infrastructure, I decided to sell my share. I now rent land from a friend and have pretty much given up on the idea of ever owning land. My housing situation is very precarious and, if I lost the ability to live there, my horticultural business would probably fold.”
We put some of these points to The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers’ Union.
A spokesperson said: “Food and farming is worth £100 billion every year to the UK economy, but we are ambitious for the industry and want it to be world-leading. It’s a vision that every farm business, from the largest holdings to the smallest, has a role to play in delivering.
“One of British farming’s strengths is its diversity, where great ideas and innovation can come from farm businesses of all shapes and sizes. Smallholdings are a valued part of our farming landscape and we want to see them thrive.
“Farmers, growers and foresters can apply for the LEADER, Countryside Productivity and European Innovation Partnership schemes, enabling them to become more productive and innovative.”
For more information see:
The CLA (www.cla.org.uk), is the membership organisation for owners of land, property and businesses in rural England and Wales, which says that it speaks for everyone who believes in a living and working countryside.
Their president, Ross Murray, said: “A strong rural economy is made up of robust, secure businesses of a mix of types and sizes. Large estates and smaller holdings are both important parts of the private landownership mix, which is the basis for the best outcomes for the economy and the environment, in both the shorter and longer terms.
“It must be recognised, however, that larger estates and farms have the greatest opportunities to create jobs and provide environmental services that benefit wider communities. It is difficult to run a viable farming business on a holding of less than five hectares.”
We asked Mr Murray if he believes the CLA is representing farmers from across the spectrum. “The CLA has 33,000 members, with holdings ranging from no acres to thousands,” he said. “What ties them together is an interest in rural land and the rural economy. Many of our members farm, but there are more than 250 different types of rural business within the CLA membership.
“The CLA’s mission is to represent the interests of our members, particularly in ensuring that they have the certainty, security and support they need to make investments in their land and businesses and to work in the best interests of the land, wildlife and the environment.
“Much of our activity benefits landowners of all sizes – for example the CLA’s work to stand up for landowners on issues such as access disputes, and our work to inform and improve landscape-scale environmental management initiatives such as flood prevention schemes.”
The NFU said: “The NFU represents all farmers irrespective of farm size and our membership of around 50,000 farmers encompasses thousands of producers who farm small or very small acreages as well as those which farm larger enterprises.”
You can comment on the issues raised in this feature by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and putting ‘Smallholding’ on the subject line. Alternatively, comment on www.facebook.com/countrysmallholding or www.twitter.com/ctysmallholding
A successful initiative
The Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC) aims to create affordable smallholdings for new entrants.
It aims to buy land, split it into smallholdings and gain planning permission for a low impact dwelling on each and shared infrastructure for the site overall, including a barn, solar array and water treatment facilities. Each holding is then sold with a 999 year lease or rented to people who agree to farm it in an ecological way.
The ELC grew out of the recognition that, while there are many producers out there with the skills and desire to build and manage a low impact home, grow food and manage land sustainably, few have the resources – and perhaps temperament – to spend years in the planning system and producing the required reports and analysis.
The organisation got planning permission for its first three smallholdings almost four years after first purchasing a site in Mid Devon. It overcame the scepticism of the local planners and residents to make the case for the viability of smallholdings. It produced a Small is Successful report which had case studies of eight successful producers farming 10 acres or less.
With this success under its belt, the ELC hopes to use its experience and documents for future applications, as well as making them available to others.
Does rural policy in Britain favour the landowning elite and commercial interests?
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