For Sale - the Co-op's Stoughton Farm.
Community bids excluded from Coop farm sale
9th July 2014
The sale process of the UK's Co-op Group of its entire 70,000 acre farm estate systematically blocked community and cooperative bidders. Not a single such bid was received by the deadline.
Detailed information about Tillington only became available from mid May and crucial information was still needed very close to the deadline for bids.
The deadline for bidding for the Co-op Group's 14 farms has now passed - with no community or cooperative bids made, thanks to the Co-op's total lack of interest in, or support for, community bidders.
Community purchase of two farms was considered but neither was progressed.
Pete Riley, who was involved in assessing a bid for the Co-op's fruit farm at Tillington, in Herefordshire, visited the farm in early June along with 40 others interested in organising a community bid for the farm. But he was defeated by
- the vendors failure to present timely accounts and other commercial information;
- lack of time to research, write and present a credible bid by the set deadline;
- the vendor's strong preference to sell its entire estate of 14 farms to a single buyer
- the less than helpful attitude of the agents handling the sale.
"During our visit to the farm in early June it became apparent that tenancies and contracts would need to be re-negotiated and that the delays in obtaining the accounts due to confidentiality agreements would have made meeting the Co-op's deadline virtually impossible", says Riley.
Insistence on selling the whole estate to one buyer
"Another major factor in deciding not to bid was the Co-op Group's very strongly stated preference to sell the Farmcare business and land as one portfolio because this maximised the price and minimised the Group's costs."
In fact, it's not clear that the price necessarily would be higher selling the entire estate as a single unit - although clearly it would be quicker and easier for the agents, Savills. But that conviction still presented a powerful barrier against potential purchasers for any single farm.
"The Co-op Group, and their agents Savills, did not go out of their way to help bids from local communities for individual farms", says Riley.
"Detailed information about Tillington only became available from mid May and crucial information was still needed very close to the deadline for bids.
"People who attended the meeting in Tillington felt that it would not be ethical to use funds raised by our very successful Crowd Funding appeal to underwrite the production of a bid knowing that a top quality bid had a very good chance of being rejected because of the Co-op Group's stated position."
A Community Land Trust
The plan for Tillington was to establish a Community Land Trust to buy the farms though a public share issue - the model that has led to several successful co-operative farmland acquisitions, for example Fordhall Farm in Shropshire in 2006 and the Biodynamic Land Trust.
The Community Land Trusts could then create tenancies for co-operatives or individual farm businesses to provide much needed access to farmland for new entrants or existing tenants wanting to move to larger farms.
The Co-op could also have considered the model set by the Ecological Land Co-operative - set up to "buy land that has been, or is at risk of being, intensively managed and lease it to people that have the skills to manage it ecologically and would not otherwise be able to afford do so."
However the Co-op's intransigent attitude and its refusal to part with essential commercial information early in the process put a stop to any such initiative.
"A more open and transparent process following the announcement of the sale in February 2014 would have given co-operative buyers a realistic chance of producing credible business plans and bids for individual farms", says Riley.
At least one positive outcome
The initiative to mount a community purchase of Tillington brought together a new group of individuals and organisations in Herefordshire.
The group will now examine "models of small farm viability and options for a countywide community co-op farm trust capable of securing access to other sites suited to small scale, diverse, community engaged farming, fruit growing and market gardening."
But Riley adds that the flawed sale process "raises the question of how the Co-op Group will handle the sale of its other assets as it strives to meet its obligations to pay off the debt that largely arises from the mismanagement of the Co-operative Bank."
"We wait to hear from the Co-op Group management and board who they intend to sell the farms estate and business to before judging whether they are adhering to the co-operative principles that enabled the Group to build its land, property and business portfolio over the last 150 years."
The Co-op Group is understood to decide on the buyer at the July 2014 Board Meeting. Completion is due by the end of September. A sum in region of £700 million is anticipated, against the Group's losses of £2 billion.
Also on The Ecologist: Halt the Co-op Farm sale - save the co-operative tradition by Helena Paul and Pete Riley.
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