�1m plan to improve Norfolk farms

Sarah HallCounty council bosses will next week attempt to draw a line under speculation they were prepared to sell off a chunk of Norfolk's county farms estate - by outlining a �1m investment to improve them.Sarah Hall

County council bosses will next week attempt to draw a line under speculation that they were prepared to sell off a chunk of Norfolk's county farms estate - by outlining a �1m investment to improve them.

The move was given a warm welcome by farming leaders, although they have raised concerns about a radical shift in the way the estate of more than 16,000 acres would be managed.

It was last October that Norfolk County Council leaders put on hold plans for a rewrite of Norfolk's county farms strategy amid rumours of a rift within the ruling Conservative group.

The county council cabinet was poised to approve a relaxation of a new policy agreed to allow some sell-offs of the estate and to avoid putting out to tender the contract to run the farms, which are managed by Norfolk Property Services (NPS).

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Tenant farmers and groups such as the National Farmers' Union inundated the council with concerns and a decision was put on hold.

The following month councillor Tony Williams, whose post of cabinet member for corporate and commer-cial services included responsibility for the county farms, was replaced on the cabinet by Bill Borrett, who was given the new title of portfolio holder for corporate affairs and efficiency.

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Mr Borrett said he hoped the new policy statement, which is set to be agreed by the Conservative-controlled cabinet on Monday will make clear that the council is committed to the rural estate.

It includes recommendations to maintain the size of the estate at 16,000 acres or more and money made from the sale of any land or buildings declared surplus should be pumped back into the estate.

It also recommends the estate become an "examplar of innovation", with the council working with Easton College to make improve-ments to sustainable farming and encouraging local food production.

Further recommendations are to encourage more new entrants to farming in Norfolk, to provide better training and to develop 10-year business plans for each estate.

Mr Borrett said: "I am really excited with what we have produced. It's a real opportunity for Norfolk, and members of the county council have really grasped the nettle.

"We have got �1m in place to take this policy forward and we want the county farms to be an exemplar of innovation and of best practice."

Christine Hill, county chairman of the National Farmers' Union, said: "There is a lot within this policy that we warmly welcome. The county council is indicating that it wants to keep the estate intact at approx-imately the same size and wants to reinvest any surplus which is sold to the tenant farmers.

"There's lots about using the estate to deliver objectives like sustain-ability and improving skills of tenant farmers, which is really good."

But Mrs Hill, who farms at Shipdham near Thetford, is concerned about plans to split the management of the estate into two - with NPS running the east sector and the contract for the west side going out to tender.

Mr Borrett said splitting the management would encourage innovation, while creating a degree of competition.

FARMING - Pages 43-46

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