We propose Co-operative Community Buy Outs of the Co-operative Group’s Farms and putting the farm land into co-operative trusteeship beyond the market, rather than a fire distress sale of our mutual national asset to hedge funds and predatory banks for asset stripping, tax avoidance, loss of jobs and land speculation.
The Co-op Group is in a crisis, having made huge losses on the Somerfield supermarkets purchase, the Britannia Building Society purchase, the Co-op Bank losses, and spending £700mn on a failed IT system. The Co-op Group’s new trophy head office in Manchester has already been sold to a Chinese sovereign wealth fund.
Current situation: The Co-operative Group recently announced its decision to sell off its farm estate, comprising 18,000 acres freehold with 21,000 acres of leased land, with 7 farms of up to 4000 acres and packhouses. Savills have been instructed by the Co-op Group to sell the farms, either in lots or as a whole, and bids are expected by the end of May even though farm particulars are not yet available.
Even details of which farms are up for sale are not currently available. The Co-op’s website now only provides a list of locations and not the names of farms: Aberdeenshire; Ashby St. Ledgers; Blairgowrie (Rosemount Farm) ; Borders; Carnoustie; Coldham; Down Ampney; Goole; Highland Court; Langley Brook; Longforgan; Louth; Rockingham; Stoughton; Tillington Fruit Farm ; and Wykeham.
The Co-op wholly owns some of these farms, others are tenancies and some are managed on contract by the Co-op. The lack of transparency regarding which land is for sale and the fate of staff and apprentices is not in keeping with the democratic structure of the Co-op.
Some commentators suggest that selling the entire land holding as a job lot will depress land prices and therefore the Co-op will lose a significant proportion of the sale of this asset. There is already keen interest in the Rosemont Farm near Blairgowrie which has been owned by the Co-op since 1952.
Ursula Lidbetter, the Co-op Group Chair, was written to in early March 2014 by Martin Large of the Biodynamic Land Trust with a proposal for a co-operative community buy out for the farms. She has to date not responded to this proposal, though her office did acknowledge receiving it.
Distress, panic, fire sale of the Co-op Farms?
Whilst it is accepted that the Co-op Group needs to get a fair price for its assets, so as to save the Co-op Group from going under, this distress fire sale of the Co-op Group’s farm assets is opposed by many members of the co-operative movement as going against basic co-op values. Many people ask, ‘Is the Co-op Group worth saving at all if it has lost its co-op values and principles to guide how it works?’ The panic selling of the farms could be as damaging for the Co-op Group as the kids in the sweet shop approach of buying Somerfield’s?
However, our community co-op farm buy out offers the Co-op Group the opportunity to reinvent and reaffirm co-op and social business values-by ensuring the co-op farms are sold into co-operative trusteeship.
The alternative? Proposal for Co-operative Community Buy Outs
We propose that the Co-op Group agrees to give the first option to purchase farms at a fair valuation to local, county wide co-operative, community benefit societies, starting with Tillington Fruit Farm in Herefordshire, Down Ampney Farm in Gloucestershire and Rosemount Farm near Blairgowrie by a Scottish action group.
Co-op Community Benefit Societies are democratically accountable, public benefit bodies set up to buy the co-op farms into co-operative trusteeship and secure the co-op farm businesses, jobs, the environment and a working countryside.
If enough county wide community benefit societies are set up which raise enough community share investment to buy the Co-op Group’s farms, then a national secondary farm trusteeship co-op body can be set up for providing common services.
The Co-op Group Farms can be saved into trust by community co-op buy outs, in alliance with the co-operative movement itself and public benefit bodies such as the RSPB, the CPRE and the National Trust so as to renew a working, sustainable countryside.
Pete Riley, instigator of the 38 Degrees petition calling for a halt to the fire sale said “I am sure there will be strong support from the Co-op members to ensure that the land is kept under co-operative ownership. The group board have not given other options a thought as they seem intent on selling to the highest bidder as quickly as possible and that could mean foreign investors and land grabbers”
Has this been done successfully before?
There are several successful co-operative community farm trusts, such as Fordhall Community land Initiative Ltd, a community benefit society set up in 2005-6 with over 8000 members who raised £800,000 to put Fordhall Farm into trust. Other such bodies include the Ecological Land Co-operative and The Soil Association Land Trust.
The Biodynamic Land Trust hopes to launch another co-op community buy out at Huxhams Farm at Dartington, Totnes, South Devon ( see www.biodynamiclandtrust.org.uk) .
This year, the BDLT successfully saved the original Archers Farm, Rush Farm, near Redditch Worcs., where the original Archers’ BBC broadcasts were carried out in the early 1950’s.
View Co-op Farm petition at http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/sale-of-co-operative-group-farms
Rosemount Co-op Farm, Blairgowrie: https://www.facebook.com/ForwardCouparAngus
Scottish Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead has written to the chief executive of Co-operative Food, Steve Murrells, concerning the proposed sale.
Said Mr Lochhead: “I am aware of the proposals for a community buy-out of the Rosemount Farm near Blairgowrie and I have written to the Co-op Group’s director of farm business to discuss these plans and explore a possible way forward for all the parties concerned.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the aims and objectives of people who believe we should diversify the ownership of agricultural land.
Scottish Government officials are in regular contact with the Co-operative Group as well as community members seeking to purchase Rosemount, and we will certainly convey to the Co-operative Group the points which those involved in the campaign are making.”