Election time

I’ve just had a politician on my doorstep. It reminded me of my emails I wrote a few weeks back to the (shadow) Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concerning obstacles I’ve encountered at The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm. I’ve copied the text below. Since I wrote, the problem with the online land registry system seems to have been resolved, however the wider land ownership issues still apply IMHO.

Who wrote back?

  • The Liberal Democrats had been in touch with me before I even wrote. They had seen my Guardian Gardening blog posts and wrote asking about what I was doing, recommending contacts, and asking how they could encourage projects like mine. Out of fairness I sent them the same email, and they continued our previous, constructive, conversation.
  • Labour’s reply rather missed the point by referring to allotments and similar initiatives. Now I am all for allotments etc, indeed I was an allotment gardener for many years, but I don’t believe they are the whole answer. What about people who cannot, physically, garden? And those who simply don’t have the time, or interest. And there is the problem of appropriate tools and expertise.
  • The Conservatives simply didn’t reply. I have just mentioned this to a doorstep canvasser.

My email to the (shadow) Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the three main parties:

Dear ***,

I’m currently setting up the Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm www.the-oak-tree.co.uk and I would be very interested to hear your opinion on:

• Whether projects like mine would be encouraged by a ***** government
• If so, how?

To give you a little background, I have encountered a number of obstacles in setting up my project, including during my purchase of the land.

The Planning System

Currently the planning rules are not at all helpful to small land based projects on the edge of towns, like mine. For example:

1. Uncertainties over future housing developments make landowners reluctant to sell small areas of agricultural land on the edge of towns. This land could be developed into smallholdings which would offer sustainable, low carbon, low food mile produce to local residents.

2. Planning requirements are far more stringent on agricultural holdings of under 5 hectares than on larger farms (regardless of proximity to a town). For example, planning permission is required even for a temporary agricultural building, which I believe would not be the case on a larger farm. My local planning authority has been very helpful within these regulations, they are not at fault here, it is more the overall philosophy behind the system that I am thinking of.

Agricultural Subsidies and grants

Beyond oversubscribed lottery grants for non-profit making activities, small scale local food projects like mine are not receiving much, if any, financial support. Compare this with the vast sums of money being made available to large land owners to install unsustainable irrigation systems etc.

Given the shortages of water, fertilizer and fuel that we face in the future, we need a radical rethink of agricultural incentive schemes. I have received no state aid whatsoever for my project. For example, the East of England Development Agency cannot help as they are currently investing in larger scale projects.

The Land Registry

The Land Registry in the UK does not give a complete picture of who owns what, and with the recent disabling of the on-line map-based search tool for title information, it is increasingly difficult for people searching for land suitable for a smallholding to find out who owns what.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on all this.

Kind regards,
Joanne Brannan

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