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Page last updated at 06:55 GMT, Monday, 21 June 2010 07:55 UK
Somerset County Council decides on selling its farms
By Ruth Lovell
Politics reporter, BBC Somerset

farmer with cattle
Matthew Heal farms 150 beef cattle in the Quantock Hills

"If it weren't for the county council farms then youngsters wouldn't be able to get a start in farming."

Matthew Heal, 39, is a youngster by farming's standards; he took over the tenancy of Pepperhill Farm at Over Stowey near Bridgwater in 2003.

Somerset County Council has said it needs to look at selling farms like his to pay back some of its £400m debt.

It says the money it could make on the sale of the farms could be used to pay for road repairs or build new schools.

Councillor David Huxtable, the cabinet member for resources at Somerset County Council, said: "We're simply running out of money."

"Rather like the government, the county council has over-borrowed," he added.

"The county council debt has quadrupled from £100m in 2001 to nearly £400m today (...) we need to raise as much money as we can or we will not be able to repair the roads or build new schools."

Somerset County Council owns 62 farms which it thinks could be worth £40m.

Since 2003, the council has had a policy of reviewing farms away from the two core estates when they come to the end of their tenancies.

Now it wants to extend that policy to the core estates at Donyatt near Ilminster, and in the Quantock Hills, against the wishes of tenant farmers and the National Farmers Union.

In limbo

Matthew Heal's organic beef herd of around 150 cattle is on his 178 acre farm in the Quantocks.

He lives there with his wife and two teenage sons, one of whom, Thomas, wants to go into farming.

He signed an eight-year tenancy in March 2003, and has been given 'notice to quit' by the end of March 2011.

Usually this notice would be accompanied with an offer to re-apply for the tenancy, but not in Matthew's case.

He's frustrated by being in limbo, but also disagrees with the county council's rationale.

"These farms were actually donated to the council years ago after the war for farmers to be able to produce food for the public so (...) it isn't technically theirs to sell."

As for the £40m the farms could be worth to the council: "It's a drop in the ocean to what they owe, and it's not our fault they're in that predicament."

Somerset County Council's Cabinet is due to vote on the proposals on Monday, 21 June.

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