8. Growing Together: farming and forestry for the many

Land in rural areas is afflicted by many of the forces that disempower and disadvantage urban communities. It is hoarded for financial speculation, used as a tax shelter, managed for short-term gain at the expense of surrounding communities and nature, and owned as a status symbol. Current policies, tax breaks and subsidies encourage consolidation of land holdings, whilst ownership is surrounded in secrecy. Small and mixed family farms are being replaced by commodity factories.

The price of farmland in England bears little relation to its productive value, pushing it out of reach of most new entrants, unless they are millionaire hobby farmers. Otherwise, the best way to acquire land – often the only way – is to inherit it. The resulting consolidation of economic and political power reinforces an almost feudal atmosphere in some rural areas, characterised by a culture of deference and a reluctance to challenge practices that cause immense social and environmental harm. Sometimes there can be a strong public desire for change, but the very small percentage of the population with significant landholdings can frustrate it. Those who seek to work the land in less damaging ways face a hostile financial and institutional environment.

Subsidies and Brexit

The European farm subsidy system has interacted disastrously with our high concentration of rural land ownership. Because the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) pays farmers by the hectare, some landowners are able to harvest millions of pounds of public money. Many smallholders, by contrast, are cut out of the payments system altogether. Holdings below 5 hectares are ruled ineligible by the UK government. Subsidies have helped inflate the speculative value of rural land, which in turn stimulates the further concentration of ownership. CPRE’s Uncertain Harvest report[1] reveals that a fifth of English farms have disappeared in the past 10 years. The rate is fastest amongst the smallest farms: almost a third of those under 50 hectares disappeared between 2005 and 2015.

Brexit provides an opportunity to replace our dysfunctional system of farm subsidies with a fairer and more rational programme. At the time of writing, the Agriculture Bill is making its way through Parliament. As a result, we do not address subsidy reform in detail in this report, though we do make one significant recommendation. But there are many other ways in which small-scale, low-impact farming can be better supported, and rural communities given greater powers to take back control over local land.

County Farms – a traditional gateway for new entrants to farming – are being sold off in large numbers. Protections on housing for agricultural workers have been removed. If you buy land with a view to establishing a smallholding, planning laws make it prohibitively difficult to live there unless you buy a house attached to the property, whose mortgage repayments are unlikely to be met by earnings from the land.

Reviving County Farms

County Farms have provided crucial rural employment at times of agricultural downturns, but since the late 1970s, the County Farms Estate has halved: falling from over 426,000 acres in 1977 to 215,000 acres today.[2] Few people are now aware of County Farms, yet they remain a vital way for new entrants to start farming, and have an important role to play making our food system more sustainable.

  • Labour should halt the sale of County Farms and legislate for a ministerial lock on their disposal.

Of course, this would not stop a future Secretary of State from allowing sale if they were so minded, but it would be a useful first step – readily achieved by amending section 8 of the 1925 Allotments Act so that County Farms are made subject to the same protections as statutory allotments.[3]

T support employment and public health while shortening supply chains and freight journeys, we should increase the amount of horticulture around cities. One step towards doing so would be to require councils to consider subdivision of County Farms near cities into smaller units, for leasing to market gardeners and horticulturalists.

Councils should also be encouraged to create new County Farms. An end to austerity and the lifting of some borrowing constraints would give councils greater leeway to invest in new farms. This should be bolstered by an allocation of grant money from central government which would be available to councils only if they spent it on acquiring new land for County Farms.

County Farms should also be offered to some tenants at below-market rates, to encourage capital-poor first time farmers and young people into farming. This applies in some cases already. All counties should offer such help.

Housing provision for land workers

Supporting a new generation of people to work in food, farming and forestry should include improving housing provision for landworkers in rural areas.

We recommend that agricultural ties[4] on dwellings should be protected to guarantee accommodation for land workers. As discussed in Chapter 5, we also recommend removing Class Q permitted development rights[5] that currently allow ‘redundant’ farm buildings to be converted into a mini estate of up to five market homes.

There should be a clear policy route for low-impact farming operations to provide residential accommodation. This could be a One Planet Development Policy, as is currently in force in Wales.

We feel it would be appropriate for the Common Ground Trust model (described in Chapter 4) to take on agricultural holdings as well as residential ones and develop new farms.

A new role for Community Land Trusts

Community Land Trusts in England have been largely focused on increasing housing provision. Drawing on the Scottish model, however, they could do much more to expand community land ownership: protecting and rewilding local habitats, addressing climate change, encouraging tourism and supporting a new generation of farmers and foresters.[6] CLTs working in partnership with councils could help take on ailing County Farms and set up new allotment societies.

Community groups could also take back control of local land where existing landowners are mismanaging it to the detriment of local people. Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, for example, has become increasingly prone to flooding. For years, residents have suspected that a causal factor is the treatment of moorland by a large landowner upstream, who has turned it into an intensively managed grouse shoot.[7] Rainfall flashes off the burnt, denuded slopes of the moor and pours into the valley below. A local tree-planting charity has tried to improve the management of watershed land around Hebden for over two decades[8], but is powerless to challenge the activities of the big private landowners. With climate change leading to increased rainfall and worsening flooding, this is likely only to get worse in future.

With new powers like Community Right to Buy, however (as discussed in Chapter 6), a CLT could bid to buy land upstream to manage it better and protect the community from flooding. The community could reasonably argue that such land serves a more important public purpose as a natural flood defence than as a grouse shoot. The Environment Agency has started to take a more catchment-based approach to natural flood management in recent years, better aligning governance structures with natural bioregions, but this would take things to the next level, by better aligning catchments with community ownership.

CLTs wishing to make such bids, however, would also need access to funds. The Community Housing Fund does what its name suggests. Expanding its brief would be divisive, in view of its cross-party support and warm reception by practitioners. So we propose setting up a sibling fund:

Create a Community Land Fund with a target of £200m of land in community ownership by 2030, funded by some of the £530m surplus accumulated by the Land Registry.[9]

Extending the planning system to farmland and forestry

The planning system was created at a time when agriculture’s impact on nature was seen as largely benign, with urban development the main threat to the countryside. Yet since the 1950s, farming has become mechanised and industrialised, powered by petrochemicals and armed with an array of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. As the State of Nature Report 2016 made plain, the main threat to nature in Britain today comes from industrialised agriculture.[10] Farmland birds have plummeted by 56% since 1970;[11] hedgehogs have declined by half since 2000 and perhaps as much as 80% since the 1950s.[12]

Agriculture and land use policy also have major impacts on climate change. In the UK, agriculture is responsible for around 46m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually[13] – some 10% of the UK’s total – yet binding policies to address this are scant. The Committee on Climate Change has recently pointed to the need for transformative changes in how we use our land if the UK is to reach net zero emissions: reducing livestock production to free up land, restoring peat bogs, and greatly increasing woodland cover to draw down and sequester more carbon from the atmosphere.[14]

There are many ways of transforming our use of land to benefit wildlife, ecosystems and the climate: from strengthening regulations on pesticides, to sparing more land for nature and rewilding our national parks. One approach, however, has been overlooked for too long: extending the planning system to cover major farming and forestry decisions. Constructing a housing development in a field rightly requires planning permission; but ploughing up a flower meadow, cutting down a wood or grubbing up a hedgerow requires no such permission.

The last time extending the planning system to cover farming and forestry was given serious consideration was in the 1980s, when land rights activist Marion Shoard proposed it as a partial solution to the destruction of Sites of Special Scientific Interest by landowners. It is time to re-open that debate. We propose:

  • Requiring a new English Land Commission to investigate an extension of the planning system to cover major farming and forestry decisions. We fully acknowledge that doing so would be complex and contentious, and requires thorough consideration and consultation. However, it is also clear that industrial agriculture is driving Britain’s remaining wildlife and habitats over a cliff edge. If planning is not the answer, far tougher environmental regulations and taxes will be required instead to right the balance.

Reforming tax privileges and subsidies on farmland and forestry

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, exempted agricultural land from inheritance tax. This policy was billed at the time as preventing family farms and smallholdings from being broken up and sold off to avoid death duties. But, along with other tax exemptions, it has been abused: farmland is now advertised as a tax shelter for the super-rich[15].

This is a complex area, requiring careful modelling of the social impacts of altering the inheritance tax and other tax privileges, and we do not wish to put small farms out of business. We recommend therefore that Labour charges a future English Land Commission with reviewing the tax regime for both farmland and forestry, with a view to preventing the use of farmland as a tax shelter for land speculators, while protecting genuine small farms. Defra’s farm statistics show that there are currently 105,000 farms left in England. Only 25,000 of these are bigger than 100 hectares (250 acres), but they cover the majority of English farmland.[16] The Land Commission could explore, for example, whether farm holdings above 100 hectares should lose their tax shelter status, or whether a monetary value threshold would be more appropriate.


An alien observer contemplating our current farm subsidy system would assume we had taken leave of our senses. Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, payments are made by the hectare: the more land you own or rent, the more public money you are given. This system represents the most regressive transfer of public wealth in the modern era.

It is also ecologically destructive. Under the current incarnation, you do not have to produce food to obtain this money. You merely need to keep your land in ‘agricultural condition’, which means that it looks as if agriculture is or could be practised there. You cannot claim subsidies for what the rules call ‘permanent ineligible features’ – ponds, wide hedgerows, meandering rivers, regenerating woodland and other such refuges. This perverse incentive has led to the destruction of a great deal of prime wildlife habitat, which is burnt, ploughed, drained and canalised to increase the eligible area for farm payments. Such destruction has been only partially ameliorated by the comparatively small amounts of money made available under the system’s agri-environment schemes.

Brexit has created an opportunity for a radical rethink of farm subsidies. The Conservative Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has promised to end area-based direct subsidies and base future payments on the principle of public money for public goods. Unfortunately, his Agriculture Bill contains major flaws.[17] It creates only powers for the Secretary of State to introduce new schemes, rather than placing duties upon him or her. Information about payments remains opaque and hard for the public to access (see our discussion in Chapter 2). Its definitions of public goods are extremely vague. And it proposes a very slow transition from the old system to the new. The speed of ecological collapse in the countryside requires a much faster response.

Given that, at the time of writing, the Agriculture Bill is moving through Parliament, we reluctantly acknowledge that this opportunity radically to reform farm subsidies has been lost. But the issues will not go away, and the specifics of the new Environmental Land Management Schemes could still be influenced. We propose that a Labour Government charge an English Land Commission with reviewing farm payments, and make recommendations for improvements that would diversify ownership and tenure, restore wildlife and ecosystems and safeguard the production of good food.

Next: Chapter 9: Future Projects and Challenges »

[1] Campaign to protect Rural England, 2017. Uncertain Harvest: does the loss of farms matter?

[2] G. Shrubsole, 2018. How the extent of County Farms has halved in 40 years, Who Owns England.

[3] The Allotments Act 1925, section 8.

[4]  This means that “the occupation of the property is limited to a person solely or mainly employed, or last employed, in the locality in agriculture as defined in Section 290(i) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, or in forestry (including any dependents of such a person residing with him) or a widow or widower of such a person”.

[5] General Permitted Development (England) Order 2015.

[6] Community Land Scotland website; Highlands and Islands Enterprise, map of community land ownership in the Highlands and Islands, 2017.

[7] Mark Avery, ‘Flood risk at Hebden Bridge’, 5 Oct 2016.

[8] Treesponsibility, a Hebden-based charity, has planted 250,000 trees since it was founded.

[9] HM Land Registry, 2018. Statement of comprehensive income for the year ended 31 March 2018

[10] RSPB et al., ‘State of Nature report 2016’ – see p.12 especially re the impact of intensive agriculture.

[11] Claire Marshall, ‘Farmland birds show rapid decline’, BBC News, 23 Oct 2014.

[12] Damian Carrington, ‘Hedgehog numbers plummet by half in UK countryside since 2000’, The Guardian, 7 February 2018.

[13] BEIS, ‘2016 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Final Figures’, 6 February 2018, p.27.

[14] Committee on Climate Change, 2018. ‘Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change.

[15] Peter Hetherington, 2015. Whose land is our land? The use and abuse of Britain’s forgotten acres, Bristol: Policy Press

[16] DEFRA, ‘Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June’, 2018 – Excel spreadsheet for England > Results by size of farm.

[17] Parliament website, Agriculture Bill documents.