Maurice Leake On Selling Cambridgeshire’s Farms

wheat07:40 Friday 31st January 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: It’s the largest farms estate in England. It employs 216 tenants and brings in revenue of nearly £4 million a year. But the County’s Liberal Democrats say it’s time to sell off Cambridgeshire County Council’s tenant farms. The party has published its alternative budget. It includes a proposal to sell off the 34,000 acre estate. We’ll be hearing from the Leader of the County’s LibDems in just a moment, but first we’re joined by Philip Brashaw, a County Council tenant farmer from Whittlesey. Phil, morning
PHILIP BRADSHAW: Morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Is this a brilliant idea?

PHILIP BRADSHAW: I would say not, based on the information we’ve got at the moment. We know this is a 34,000 estate, that 216 of us are making a living on the estate. But very importantly, it’s bringing in round about £3.7 million of revenue for the County Council this year.
PAUL STAINTON: So how long have you been a tenant farmer? What’s it like living under the citizenship if you like of Cambridgeshire County Council?
PHILIP BRADSHAW: We try to make it a very equitable situation. We need to work hard to make our living, but we also need to pay a sensible sustainable market rent to put income back into the Council, because that’s what it really needs is income. And I’ve actually been on the estate for a bit over twenty years, and back in 1991, when we moved to our farm at Whittlesea, the estate was very nearly sold then. It almost went. It came down to a few votes at a Full Council vote. And at that point it was valued at £18 million, professionally valued at eighteen. Now we don’t know what it’s worth, but it could well be worth, the whole estate, round about £180 million, because of the inflation in land values since. And that’s a big increase in value.
PAUL STAINTON: It is, and the LibDems say tenant farmers would have protected tenancies, so you’d be OK wouldn’t you? You’d just have a different landlord, and Cambridgeshire County Council would have £180 million to plug their black hole.
PHILIP BRADSHAW: Yes. They’re only talking about selling part of it. We would need to bear that in mind, maybe £100 million worth, which could in itself bring problems, because it takes away from the strategic and managerial value of the current size of the estate. Yes, my tenancy would be largey protected. Most of us would be. But I think my biggest concern is not so much my situation as a tenant, but my situation as a council tax payer and resident of Cambridgeshire, because if we lose this asset, that clearly if we sold it twenty years ago, or just over twenty years ago in ’91, it would have been disastrous, because since then the Council have had over £60 million worth of sale from the estate, selling strategic bits and pieces of land, development land and that sort of thing. They’ve also had over £35 million in revenue. All this from something that was valued at £18 million back in 1991. So I think my biggest concern is that is it not a case of selling off the family silver.
PAUL STAINTON: Well, Maurice Leake is the Leader of the LibDem group on Cambridgeshire County Council. They’ve come up with the idea. Maurice, you’re selling off the family silver, are you?
MAURICE LEAKE: You might say that. We have to set this against the fact that the County Council has £500 million of debt. Would anybody seriously advocate that we should take out additional debt to extend the estate, or of we didn’t have it, to buy it now? I don’t think so. The position with the tenants is protected. This is something that the company that we propose to set up will continue to run. There’ll still be the opportunities in farming for people like Mr Bradshaw. And that’s something that we’re keen to see preserved. On the other hand the services that the County Council provides are not going to be provided by anybody else.
PAUL STAINTON: Is the fear though .. actually let me ask Phil. Phil, is there a fear that eventually there won’t be the opportunities for young people coming through, and perhaps whoever the tenant is, down the road this land will get flogged off?
PHILIP BRADSHAW: Well inevitably we’re going to be concerned about the way the estate would be managed. At the moment it’s run very sustainably. There are new tenants. We’ve had something like 80 new tenants in 15 years. And this is bringing in a great deal of students if you like, of new people into the industry, which is a very positive thing. I’m pleased to hear that the intention would be to continue with that, and continue with management on a similar vein. But my biggest concern as I say is really that clearly it would have been disastrous to have done it 22 years ago. I’m going to take a bit of convincing that financially it’s the right thing to do now. But I fully accept that we do need to look at everything, because of the issue with finances within the Council.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. You see my worry Maurice is that whoever takes over this chunk of the estate start with good intentions, but then down the road think, do you know what, we need to build some houses. And we’ll flog that farm off, we’ll flog that farm off, and then we’re left with nothing.
MAURICE LEAKE: And that’s precisely what the County Council has been doing over the last twenty years, as Mr Bradshaw has just outlined. The problem though is that somehow we’ve got to pay for gritting the roads, repairing the potholes, providing community transport bus subsidies, improving roads, transport options across the County. This is a way that we can do it. The alternative is the cuts that the Conservatives are proposing. We’re trying to come up with a realistic alternative, which preserves services for all of the community across the County.
PAUL STAINTON: Once it’s gone it’s gone.
MAURICE LEAKE: That’s right. Once it’s gone it’s gone.
PAUL STAINTON: As you heard Phil say, if we’d sold it twenty years ago it would have been a disaster. Are we not thinking about committing the same mistake again?
MAURICE LEAKE: I don’t think .. yes .. I voted against selling it twenty two years ago. It was the wrong time to sell it then. And as Mr Bradshaw has said, we have benefitted from keeping it. And that is why we’re excluding from the sale pieces of land that we think have the potential to increase in value, or offer a good return to the County Council. But I come back to the point. The reason that we’re considering this is because there are services that nobody else other than the County Council is going to provide that are going to go by the board. Losing a third of our roads not being gritted during icy conditions is something that .. a route I don’t want to go down. And that’s one of the critical decisions that’s being faced because we just don’t have the money to pay for these services.
PAUL STAINTON: It would just be a sticking plaster though wouldn’t it, because once you’ve had the money that’s it. Where do you go next time?
MAURICE LEAKE: Yes, that’s right. It is a sticking plaster. And we all know that local government finance is in a mess. But we know that the country is having to make economies at the moment. It is a fairly short term solution. The benefits are going to wear out completely over the next twenty five years. But it does enable us to get through this critical period, and continue to provide services for the people who depend on them.
PAUL STAINTON: Would you sell it to the highest bidder? Do you mind who you sell it to? Pension funds etcetera.
MAURICE LEAKE: Well I think pension funds would be a very good idea. There is a really good prospect that the ownership will only pass from the County Council to the County Council’s own pension fund, if they want to buy it. So the change for the tenants and the operation of the estate needn’t be huge.
PAUL STAINTON: Do pension funds care about the future of farming in the County? Do they care about tenant farmers? Or do they just look to make a fast buck and sell it on to make a profit for their pension fund?
MAURICE LEAKE: They look to make a profit for their pension fund. But this is a very good investment opportunity, as Mr Bradshaw has explained, and the benefits that we’ve had over the last twenty years, But it comes back to critical services that we can provide for people across the County.
PAUL STAINTON: Maurice, thank you very much. Maurice Leeke, Leader of Cambridgeshire’s LibDems. Phil Bradshaw before that, tenant at one of the County Council’s farms in Whittlesey, saying he’s not sure it’s a great idea, selling off the County’s silver effectively, all this farmland. What do you think?

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