A LOCAL authority grappling with huge budget cuts should consider cashing in a large portfolio of farms and land it owns, a councillor has suggested.

Durham County Council owns 24 farms of varying sizes which encompass 2,238 acres of land which, County Coun John Shuttleworth claims, could fetch between £7m and £10m if sold.

The county council, which faces a further £100m in budget cuts, has confirmed it is reviewing the portfolio but the National Farmers Union (NFU) has expressed caution. It said: “The temptation to liquidise land assets to help meet budget shortfalls could have a longterm effect on the local farming industry.”

A Freedom of Information request by Coun Shuttleworth, who represents Weardale, revealed that in the last 12 months the council raised £754,090 in rental income from the farms.

Rents have remained the same for three years and range from an annual £8,138 to just £44.87 for a six acre plot.

Coun Shuttleworth said: “If they are so desperate for money they should be working with farmers to sell this land if possible.The council is potentially sitting on between £7m and £10m here.

The bill for repairs and maintenance will be another financial burden.”

Stuart Timmiss, the council’s head of planning assets, said many of the farms had been in local authority ownership since the early 20th century as a result of the Government encouraging councils to provide farming opportunities for servicemen returning from war.

He said: “The council still has an important role in supporting the agricultural community in County Durham and these arrangements have continued with everyone’s agreement.

“The farms provide livelihoods for a number of families and they are their homes as well as their businesses.

Most repairs and maintenance are carried out by the tenants themselves so there is very little ongoing cost to the council.

“The council is in the process of reviewing its portfolio, including farms. If this identifies an opportunity for existing tenants to buy their farm then as a council we may consider this.”

Lucinda Douglas, a regional tenants adviser with the NFU, said: “County farms have traditionally provided an invaluable route into farming for new entrants trying to get a foot on the ladder.

“While it may be tempting to liquidise the council's land assets to help ease current budget shortfalls, this could have a long term effect on the local farming industry.”