City-dwellers who want space are driving farmers away, says study

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Farmers are being driven off their land, according to figures released yesterday that show almost half the agricultural holdings sold in the past three months were bought by people moving out of cities.

Only 41 per cent of farms that changed hands were acquired by farmers, the data from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) showed. A greater proportion (45 per cent) were picked up by urban dwellers. Small holdings of between 50 and 100 acres were the preferred acquisitions of professionals seeking sanctuary from the stresses of city life.

Andrew Samuel, a chartered surveyor at the firm of Charles Clarke & Co in Heathfield, Sussex, said: "We haven't sold a farm to a farmer for six or seven years. I mean, anything with less than 100 acres isn't a farm these days - you can't make a living from it. But even those which are bigger than that aren't selling to farmers."

What Mr Samuel, has seen is big-money buyers from London arriving to snap up properties with 50 acres or so.

"You know what they say about land," said Mr Samuel. "It isn't being built anymore. And in the South-east especially it's coming under pressure for purposes other than farming."

Indeed, any big farms that sell are usually broken up and parcelled off as plots of land to entice buyers from nearby cities, In Bridgend in south Wales, Simon Lloyd of the surveyors Cooke & Awkwright said: "We haven't had a farm bigger than 100 acres sell for the past two years".

But he has recently seen a 150-acre farm sold off in 10 separate lots. "It's professionals in Cardiff who find it hard to buy big enough houses, so they're looking further afield. They can commute on the M4, so they're creating a second commuter belt further out of the city."

In Heathfield, Mr Samuel has seen a similar effect - although some of the 50-acre farms being sold are turned into working land, of a sort.

"Often when these farms are sold, they're advertised as having "sporting rights", which means that, if the topography of the land is right, they can be developed for shooting - we have partridges, pheasant, ducks, maybe wildfowl," he said. "We're only an hour and 20 minutes from London, so a City gent will think nothing of getting in the car and coming down for a day's shooting." For the new owner, that can be a far more profitable way to use the land than trying to struggle with EU subsidies and the cost of farm equipment.

City buyers seeking income from their newly acquired land will also find neighbouring farmers keen to rent space to farm: it's an easy way to expand without requiring a massive capital injection. With land prices near an eight-year high, that's a quick method of expanding at a time when size is a requirement for farmers' survival.

The RICS said "non-farmers are keeping the rural land market buoyant" but added: "We should not lose sight of the fact farmers are an integral part of the rural economy".

The problem for farmers is that making a profit is increasingly hard. The Common Agricultural Policy reforms have frozen sales, because future payments will be tied to the person who was farming an area between 2000 and 2003, not - as before - the farm itself. A complex formula will also affect how much they get paid, so many larger farmers are sitting tight and waiting for the reform to be completed.

Meanwhile, the appetite among city-dwellers for more space remains undiminished. "We had a 45-acre farm go at auction for £995,000, from a guide price of £650,000," said Paul Clayson, a partner at the estate agents Clayson Haselwood Fishergerman in Banbury, Oxfordshire.


"It makes me sorry in one respect," said Tim Whitlock as he considered the growing trend for farms to be sold to non-farmers. "But the problem is that the value of land is just so over-inflated above what you can get from agricultural use."

Having lived in Buckingham for 40 of his 56 years, he has seen many farms sold to people who have never worked on the land, and now hanker for a bit - actually, a lot - more space. "The problem is that you get some of the people who start complaining, once they've got these places in the country, about the natural activities of the working country - the noise of the corn dryer, or the sound of the cattle lowing, or the smell of pig muck. They're not always happy bedfellows," he said.

Mr Whitlock is the organiser at the local branch of the National Farmers Union, where he looks after the interests of 300 farmers.

But all over the country, farmers are discovering that the only way to survive is to think big - or to sell up. Seeing some of the smaller 50-acre farms being sold to non-farmers, Mr Whitlock said, "makes me wonder if they will ever return to the land in future years. It's a bit of a Trojan horse, people buying them up. True, there's a capital injection to the landowner who sells a large house, maybe with horse paddocks for the buyers. And it sometimes means more jobs for people in the area.

"Generally though they're pretty hard-headed business people who buy these properties. And they want to make the land earn its keep." Often that means contracts to let local farmers use the land, which suits both sides.

But he knows that wherever he went, he would find the same process going on. "After all, people have made some money in industry, and then they buy their little piece of England with some land attached."