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Farming: New Entrants

Volume 808: debated on Monday 23 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of opportunities for new entrants into farming; and what steps they are taking to increase any such opportunities.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The Government are working with the skills leadership group to introduce a professional body for agriculture and horticulture to promote the sector and the vibrant careers in it. New technologies are transforming food production, generating opportunities that require skills in farming, environment and business. The Government are also developing a new entrants’ scheme to provide funding for councils and other landowners, providing opportunities for new entrants.

My Lords, my noble friend will recall that, during the passage of the Agriculture Act, a lot of emphasis was placed on opportunities for new entrants into farming, just as he described; I welcome that. Does he share my concern that a number of councils, including Scarborough Borough Council, are seeking to dispose of agricultural land, including tenant farmers’ land, from their portfolio? This will lead to fewer opportunities for tenant farmers. Will my noble friend and the Government address this grave issue?

My Lords, we value the role that council farms play in providing opportunities for new entrants. That is why we want to incentivise councils to retain and invest in their farm estates so that they can continue to provide opportunities into the future.

My Lords, post-Brexit British agriculture and horticulture require a new generation of farmers and a larger and more highly skilled UK-based workforce. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, about county farms, will the Government urge counties to stop divesting their county tenancies and start investing in new opportunities for those who wish to farm but do not inherit and cannot buy the land? Are they proposing to produce an updated recruitment, skills training and career structure for UK land workers in agriculture and horticulture?

My Lords, one of the reasons the Government are reforming post-16 technical education to provide clearer routes into skilled employment in agriculture and other associated sectors is precisely to address the point the noble Lord has made. The other issue, as I will repeat, is that we want councils to retain and invest in their farm estates and for other landowners to take the opportunity of the new entrant scheme that we are developing because we think that this is a positive part of the future in agriculture.

My Lords, with the changes in funding arrangements for farmers, many of the older generation are thinking about retirement, and ensuring that there are plenty of opportunities for the younger generation to take over these farms will be essential. How are the negotiations promised during the passage of the Agriculture Act for nieces and nephews to take over farms is progressing? If nothing has happened so far, can the Minister update the House on when this will take place?

My Lords, so far as tenancy agreements are concerned, our first priority is to bring forward the regulations that are required following the Agriculture Act 2020 into modernising those areas of the tenancy regime that we think will be very productive. Once we have done that, working with the Tenancy Reform Industry Group, which engages with all parties, will enable us to bring forward any other changes with consensus.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my interests as set out in the register. From his earlier answer, my noble friend will doubtless agree that a considerable part of the problem of attracting new entrants into the agriculture industry has been the demise and disposal over many years of the county council smallholdings estate which has otherwise provided an excellent entry point for those who might have found it impossible to gain access to farming in their own right. Will there be an opportunity within the Agriculture Act, perhaps under the public good requirement, for larger landowners to be encouraged to make available land that will enable small entry-point farms to be established?

My Lords, my noble friend has picked up on something very important. Going beyond our new entrants scheme and councils with rural estates, we also want to work with landowners and other organisations that want to invest in creating new opportunities for talented new entrants. We think that there are strong reasons for county local authorities to work with private landowners so that we can create a continuing momentum of availability of land. We want to have innovative and new agriculture entrepreneurs.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner as set out in the register. Opportunities are principally linked to the availability of land, availability of finance and likely profitability. Without resolving these points, the entrant is limited to apprenticeship or employment on an existing farm. Given the enormous amount of capital required to enter farming, can the Minister assure us that thought is being given to either the Government providing guarantees directly to a new entrant or to the banks, the landowner, the machinery manufacturer or other meaningful supplier to encourage their working with the new entrant?

My Lords, my noble friend has raised a key point. Not only do we need access to land and skills, we want to ensure this through the productivity grants, which are part of the Agriculture Act and the work we want to undertake in this area. This important part of the Act addresses not only access but also equipment, technology and so forth, whether it is for entrants or indeed established farmers. That is part of our continuing work.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that increasing the number of affordable rural homes is vital to enabling new entrants to come into the farming sector. However, the housing Minister revealed to me recently that the Government do not keep data on the number of existing affordable homes that are lost through sale or inflated rents. When are the Government going to address the haemorrhaging of cheap homes for rent in rural areas so that young families can afford to live and play their part in the rural economy?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that affordable rural housing is key to ensuring that we have a vibrant agricultural industry. That is why in 2018 the Government launched the revised National Planning Policy Framework. The rural housing chapter gives strong support to rural exception sites and includes new policies to support the building of homes in isolated locations where that supports, for instance, farm succession. In addition, the Government have amended the permitted development rights to support rural housing and agricultural productivity by enabling up to five new homes to be created from existing agricultural buildings, an increase from a maximum of three.

My Lords, more than 50 years ago, my mum and dad got their first foot in farming through the tenancy of a county council holding. A survey by Who Owns Britain? shows that up to 2017, the acreage of county farms halved. Only yesterday, Staffordshire had eight farms for sale. The Minister has said warm things about county farms, and we welcome that, but unless the Government put up money now, that haemorrhaging of county farms will continue. What are the Government going to do now in order to encourage councils to do what they want them to do?

My Lords, we are working on a co-design with councils, landowners and others so that the new entrant scheme works precisely with county farms and local authorities. That is because, as I have said, we want that to be retained. This work is under way and will be co-designed in 2021, and we hope to roll out the programme in 2022. Not only are there county farms, but a third of the land in this country is tenanted and there are obviously opportunities in the tenant farming sector as well.

My Lords, will the Minister keep in mind the land mobility scheme in Northern Ireland? It has been in operation for three years and facilitates the transfer of land from older retired people to new young entrants. Will he discuss these matters with the Minister responsible for agriculture in Northern Ireland in order to ensure the implementation of best practice?

My Lords, I shall certainly do that. Our proposals on lump sum and delinking are to facilitate retirement. That is an issue on which we are consulting, and I am most grateful to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, in order to turn opportunities into reality, farming has got to be profitable or the Government must subsidise farmers. Is my noble friend any clearer on what the costs of implementing ELMs properly will be, and if he is, does he know whether the Treasury will fund them in the current economic situation?