Review launched into governance of county farms

County Hall. Photo : Steve Adams

County Hall. Photo : Steve Adams - Credit: Archant

A review into Norfolk County Council's £1.7m a year county farms has been launched, it can be revealed today – after concerns were raised over the running of the estate.

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Auditors at County Hall have been called in to go through the books of the estate, triggered by 'specific criticisms' which have been raised.

The county council has declined to reveal details of what those 'criticisms' are. But the EDP understands one of them centres on allegations a member of staff moved into one of the homes on one of the farms.

It is understood the claim is that a council officer moved into the home – which are meant to be for experienced farmers who are renting farmland – for a short period because he needed somewhere to live.

The farm building was between lets when he is said to have moved in and the officer is understood to have paid rent during his stay.

A spokesman for Norfolk County Council said: 'We can confirm that a review into the governance of the County Farms Estate is under way, following a number of specific criticisms.

'The county council is carrying out the review, with support from a senior officer from Broadland District Council. We are unable to comment further on any aspect of the review until it has been completed.'

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Other allegations made are that various farms have been rented to the same tenant and farms have been sub-let, while concerns have been raised over the openness of the letting process.

The county council owns 16,200 acres of farmland across the county of Norfolk, which it lets to more than 145 tenants. There are 81 occupied homes on those estates.

Under the council's rules, people wanting to rent county farm estates for farming should be able to show they have five years' experience of practical farm work and evidence of training in agriculture.

A panel – made up of a council officer and up to four county councillors who are members of the County Farms Advisory Board – have the ultimate say on which tenants are chosen to rent farms.

In documents for applying, would-be tenants are told farm lettings are 'very competitive'.

They are advised to present a sound business case for the farm, including budgets, gross margins, fixed costs breakdowns, cash flow, machinery schedules and balance sheets, covering at least the first 12 months of the tenancy.

The council was not able to confirm whether its own officers or councillors are allowed to rent farms or homes on estates.

The authority said tenants can sub-let homes not required to a named third party for a maximum of six months, with the council's written consent. The sub-letting of land is not permitted.

Jonathon Childs, UKIP county councillor for East Flegg in Great Yarmouth, said he had passed on 'numerous complaints' about county farms issues to council officers. He said: 'The audit will show the people of Norfolk that complaints are taken seriously. It's not a witch hunt, but it's a fact finding issue to prove or disprove very serious allegations.'