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Cornish council tenant farmers face huge hike in rents
8:30am Wednesday 16th October 2013 in Cornwall
More than 100 tenant farmers are facing huge increases in the rents they have to pay to Cornwall Council following a shake-up in the way officials manage the estate.
Tenants have been told their rents are increasing by 25 per cent – 50 per cent after land agents Bruton Knowles were brought in to help the council run its farms.
Cornwall councillor Adam Paynter, the cabinet member responsible, said that so far none of the increases had been challenged by a formal review but he understood that tenants were unhappy. “No-one likes their rent going up but so far there have been no cases of arbitration,” he said.
“Every farm is different and we have to take a view as to how we get enough money coming in to maintain our investment in these farms.”
The council still owns 103 farms across Cornwall, despite moves to sell-off parts of the estate in recent decades. Budget pressures meant its estates management team had fallen from five to two staff, which was why it had retained property management firm Bruton Knowles to undertake the rent reviews, said councillor Paynter.
“The council leader thought it may be good to have an independent, commercial view,” he said.
“The rents must support investment in the estate to keep it viable, but of course we still need to be fair.”
The council was also considering outsourcing its estates management for the next 10 years, said Cllr Paynter. Adding: “I'm not sure what political appetite there will be for that. We would lose a certain amount of control and flexibility.”
The issue has come to a head now because of the annual rent review deadline at the end of September. Bruton Knowles agent Gareth Lay said each farm was being evaluated on an individual basis. Adding: “Local authorities are no different to private clients, in trying to maximise income to their property portfolios.”
In one case, a farmer was presented with a 26 per cent hike despite already having had a rent increase three years ago. Another tenant was offered a 50 per cent increase, which he then negotiated back to 10 per cent. Mr Lay accepted that sometimes tenants did face large percentage increases because their rents had not been reviewed for many years.
Elwyn Thomas, an agent at Lodge and Thomas acting for some of the tenants, believed such increases were totally unjustified. “In the past the council has always settled rent reviews in an amicable manner, but now it has put the reviews out to tender,” he said.
“There are now arbitrations pending and tenants are very upset, because it's costing them a lot of money.
“They're also worried about the rent levels that are being sought, and that they are losing the long-standing relationship they've had with their landlord.”
Patrick Aubrey-Fletcher, Cornwall's NFU adviser, said it was concerning that rents were being hiked at a time when farm incomes were under such pressure.
“Farmers have found the past 18 months very difficult. The council also needs to be sure it has carried out its obligations under the tenancy agreements, before requiring tenants to pay substantially more rent.”
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