why not invest in the Eastbourne downland farms rather than flog them off?

Blog post today is from our Co-ordinator, Andy Durling:

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I’ve just watched the BBC Countryfile programme, which had an item about the accelerating sell-off of council-owned farms. The government-sponsored report, Future of Farming Review, was mentioned. So I looked it up (https://www.gov.uk/…/pb13982-future-farming-review-20130709…). These extracts from it struck me:

“The agricultural sector is often characterised as low skilled and unprofessional with long hours, low pay and offering little by way of career opportunities, particularly for the most able candidates. We believe, however, that it is a highly innovative and complex sector that needs the brightest and most skilled to help it to become increasingly competitive, profitable and sustainable.

5.2 Indeed the Report of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food stated that “We believe the real reason why the present situation is so dysfunctional is that farming has become detached from the rest of the economy and the environment. The key objective of public policy should be to reconnect our food and farming industry: to reconnect farming with its market and the rest of the food chain; to reconnect the food chain and the countryside; and to reconnect consumers withwhat they eat and how it is produced.”

5.3 The way that schoolchildren are taught about farming is vital to sustain their interest in it as a possible career. We believe that agriculture is an excellent way of teaching science and geography, as we said in our response to the Department for Education‟s (DfE) National Curriculum consultation (see Annex D). The industry needs to keep up the pressure on DfE to ensure that farming features in the national curriculum and on schools‟ agendas. We believe that this is a task that falls to one lead body, such as Farming and Countryside Education (FACE).

5.24 County Council farms have provided many new entrants with a route into the industry, the legal framework for which is provided through the Agriculture Act 1970. These farms are often seen as „starter farms‟ that enable enthusiastic young people to obtain land and build a business. At present, they are often let for shorter terms to encourage tenants to move on and provide further opportunities for the new entrants that follow. Pressures on Local Authorities‟ budgets have led to some considering or actively selling these farms18 and we see this as a great loss for the sector. If these farms are well managed, bearing in mind their „total return‟, they can often provide a worthwhile asset for local authorities while maintaining this crucial entry route for new farmers. They can also play a role in educating the public about local food, as Devon County Council are doing with their FarmWise event.”

The Countryfile programme went on to show how Staffordshire County Council INCREASED its investment in the farms it owns in order to increase the revenue it gets from those farms, and saw such investment as a key part of its growth strategy for coping with the decline in grant income all councils now get from central government.

So why can’t Eastbourne Borough Council at least look at the business opportunities that the nearly 3,000 acres of downland farms it intends to sell could represent? Why can’t it just halt the sale and allow business and farming experts to properly examine how to get a better return on capital from those farms? Why can’t the council look at how the farms could play an important role in local education and in local community engagement with food generally. Why can’t the council look at ways that the farms could increase local food resilience and the sustainability of the local food economy?

These questions, and others, could be explored in a proper public consultation on the downland farms, and allow the creativity and innovative thinking of local people to feed into that consultation in order to come up with a new, positive vision for our public downland estate.

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