I’d been aiming to publish a bit of good news on this site for a change, just when I learned yesterday the very bad news of the Manchester bombing. I guess I can understand some of the logic of anti-modernist and anti-liberal movements – I’ve even been called a dangerous extremist myself once or twice for that reason. What I struggle to understand or empathise with is the emotional interior of anyone who kills people at random, and what they think it achieves. My thoughts are with those personally affected.
Well, maybe the best thing I can do is press on with the good news anyway…which is that, finally, forty odd years after Margaret Thatcher launched her revolution of small-time shareholding, for the first time in my life I’ve bought some shares. I hope the spirit of Margaret is smiling on me, though to be honest if I were to dedicate my purchase to an indomitable politician my pick would be Caroline Lucas. The shares, you see, are in the Ecological Land Co-op (ELC), which raises finance from investors in order to create affordable low-impact smallholdings – a congruent aim with my small farm future brief.
I think organisations like the ELC are a necessary step on the path to a small farm future here in Britain for reasons neatly captured by a pithy answer I read a year or two back to a question posted on the British Farming Forum about how to get into farming: “Be born into it, marry into it or make a stack of money and buy your way into it.” OK, so there are other options – go to agricultural college, become a farm manager, or if you’re lucky perhaps take on a tenancy. But in the UK landownership is the sine qua non of security, especially if you harbour fancy notions of farming ‘ecologically’. And agricultural land is pretty darned expensive – £10,000 per acre is about par. At an auction I attended recently, one 3.5 acre parcel went for £110,000. And this is bare land without a dwelling – you can probably multiply those values tenfold for a plot with planning permission for a dwelling, regardless of whether it has an actual farmhouse on it or not.
Ah, planning permission, planning permission. In rural England, we seem to talk of little else. Well, I’ve been down this road too many times on this blog before, but I’m going to try to explain very briefly how this works and where the ELC comes in. Since 1947, building in the so-called ‘open’ countryside has been rigorously restricted. I concede there’s some logic to it – scattering random houses around the countryside probably isn’t a great idea. So if you buy a plot of agricultural land and want to build a house on it, you have to persuade the powers that be that you have a good agricultural case for your proposed dwelling. Again, not such a bad idea – otherwise the fields would soon be paved over by people seeking nothing more than a house on the cheap.
The problem is, the powers that be are notoriously unpersuadable. The two main stumbling blocks usually revolve around proving that there’s an ‘essential need’ to live onsite and proving that the business will be financially viable. On the first point, let me give the example of my planning authority whose Local Plan states in paragraph 6.121 “In most cases, it will be as convenient and more sustainable for [farm] workers to be accommodated in existing accommodation in nearby towns and villages” – a wording shamelessly lifted from now defunct government guidelines and re-purposed to keep the riff-raff off the land until 2029. But, seriously, ‘as convenient and more sustainable’? Anyone who’s actually tried to run a farm while living somewhere else would likely respond, “no it bloody isn’t” but perhaps paragraph 6.121 suffices to indicate the journey in store for anyone seeking to persuade their local authority of their need to live on the land.
On the second point, the idea of running a business that’s financially viable probably doesn’t seem a demanding hurdle, except hardly anyone makes any appreciable money out of farming these days and the whole sector is pretty much propped up by a subsidy regimen courtesy of the EU (interesting times ahead…) But small-scale farmers aren’t eligible for subsidies and the costs of actually establishing a farm (even a homespun one like mine with its aging machinery and freecycled infrastructure) are prohibitive.
The result is that people who basically just want to run a viable farm can spend years and years wrangling with local planning authorities, and an awful lot of time and public money is wasted trying to prevent people from doing a little bit of good in their local communities.
This is where for me the ELC ticks a lot of boxes. By raising money from investors, it’s able to lease or sell leasehold smallholdings at more affordable prices, thus obviating the aforementioned need for the would-be farmer otherwise to choose the circumstances of their birth, enter a loveless marriage of convenience, or toil miserably to turn an income when they should be turning a furrow. It has paid staff who are able to take on the burden of attaining planning permissions – a task made easier by the accumulation of expertise within the organisation and by establishing a successful track record. And by acting as a watchful but benevolent landlord, it can take the sting out of the inevitable but usually misplaced mutterings among local residents and planning officers that a rural worker’s dwelling application is only a front by scammers in search of a cheap house.
The downsides – well, I suppose it’s not a very radical solution to the problem of rural land availability. The smallholdings the ELC can offer in view of all its other commitments aren’t that affordable, and a lot of the money raised from well-meaning investors like me goes into the pocket of the vendor. Though since I’m a sometime property vendor myself I can’t really complain – I can only assuage my guilt by buying ELC shares. Ultimately, it seems to me four changes are needed if we’re to create a sensible and sustainable turnover of agricultural land. First, a way of capturing its value socially – Malcolm Ramsay was discussing his interesting proposals along those lines on this site a few weeks back. Second, a modification of the planning system to make it supportive of rather than hostile towards people pursuing genuine small-scale agricultural projects (this wouldn’t require any legislative change – just a change of planning authority culture). And third a way of monitoring such projects to ensure their genuineness – though I’d make a proviso here that established ‘born in’ farmers should be subject to the same monitoring, so as not to discriminate against new entrants. These three suggestions, however, only involve the commercial farming sector – whereas what I’ve been driving at on this blog of late is the need to embrace low impact subsistence smallholdings. This could quite easily be achieved with a few tweaks to the self-build policies that councils now have in place and a bit more thought in Local Plan drafting. Though regrettably subsistence smallholding doesn’t loom large in any of the major parties’ political priorities just now, so I suspect the policies will remain untweaked.
Well, in the meantime at least the ELC is here raising the profile of these issues and painstakingly preparing fertile ground – both literally and figuratively – for a more sustainable agrarian future. The good news is the share offer is still open – so if you’ve got some spare cash to invest in a worthy cause, you can come join me in the (slow and peaceful) revolution.