DEVON’S county farms will not be sold, the county council’s leader has pledged.
John Hart (Conservative) made the commitment after opposition member Julian Brazil (Lib Dem) claimed he had “heard rumours” they could be sold to pay off a growing overspend in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Devon’s total running overspend on the service is projected to be £127 million at the end of this month, rising to £153 million by March 2024.
Councils across the country have been instructed by the government to keep these overspends in ring-fenced accounts separate from its main budget while it develops a new funding model – an arrangement recently extended to 2026.
Negotiations between Devon and the government are ongoing about what will happen to the total – effectively debt – and who will be responsible for paying it off.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, March 8, Cllr Brazil said: “I think at some stage we’ve got to have a clearer understanding of what that [overspend] is going to entail within the council.
“I’ve heard rumours that we’re going to flog off all our farms in order to pay that off. That’s the kind of rumour that I’m hearing.”
In response, Cllr Hart said: “I will categorically say to you now, Cllr Brazil, that we are not selling the farms estate … the farms estate is not on the market. They never have been, and I said when I took over the leadership of this council that it was one of the jewels in our crown that I’m most proud of.”
Leader of the Labour group, Cllr Carol Whitton, said she “welcomed” the comments, adding: “It is indeed a real asset that is held by the county council and brings in a useful income.”
She continued: “It is a beacon in our rural agricultural county for best practice and for helping people into that particular industry.”
Devon’s county farms estate contains 3,873 hectares (9,570 acres) of agricultural land and comprises 65 fully equipped residential dairy and mixed livestock farms.
According to the county council, the estates “aims to provide people with their first opportunity to farm but with a view that within a reasonable time frame, they secure an independent livelihood from agriculture.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Alistair Dewhirst said Cllr Hart’s pledge was “really important … because there are many people out there who are really concerned about the situation at Devon County Council with this massive, huge overspend going on that somehow is hidden from public view but we all know is there.”
Updating colleagues, Cllr Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative), cabinet member for children’s services said the council is trying to reach a resolution on the SEND overspend, adding: “I am confident we will sort this out.”