Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Leighton Mega Diary

Posted in: Me, Miscellany

This week sees the conclusion of the Public Inquiry into the proposed dairy extension at Lower Leighton farm which is near where I live. The farmer wants to increase his herd to 1,000 cows and house them inside for most of the year in a huge new farm development. This is the probable final stage in the process of the application which has been ongoing for the past few years. It has been opposed by the planning department (the council’s own planning experts), approved once by the planning committee (a group made up of non-specialist council members) and then opposed by a different planning committee.*

It is a very contentious application because it is a new way of farming in Britain. It is large scale, almost industrial and it is located right next to a small village and a primary school (which also forms part of the village hall). ‘Extension’ is the phrase used in the official planning application but it is somewhat disingenuous as the new farm is quite frankly, massive. It will consist of a series of fodder stores, cow sheds and two slurry stores. One slurry store will hold the village hall at least three times inside it and the stores are small compared to the rest of the development. The site will involve the creation of 16,000 square metres (1.6 hectares) of new concrete floorspace and the removal of nearly 84,000 cubic metres of soil from the site during the estimated five to 10 year building phase. The buildings will be between 8 and 13m high.

The Welsh Government has ‘called in’ this application because it has wider implications of national importance and they will have the final say. The calling in process means there is a Public Inquiry whereby the inspector Katie Peerlees, will listen to the evidence provided by all interested parties and then present her findings and recommendations to the environment minister, John Griffiths for him a Welsh Government minister to decide. The final decision could still be months away.

There has been much opposition to this development, locally, nationally and from many animal welfare groups. The reason the later have been involved is their concern about the cows being housed inside for at least 250 days a year in a compact area and possibly never eating a blade of grass. There has been much debate about this with some saying animal husbandry standards are higher in bigger herds and being inside makes it easier to look after them. Animal welfare is not a planning matter – so it isn’t considered in any planning decisions.

Issues

The major local issue is the scale and location of the development and there is great concern that a large industrial-scale diary like this will dominate the area. Leighton is a rural village with a particularly special history. It is the site of the Leighton Estate, the best preserved Victorian model farm in Wales, with numerous listed buildings and Offa’s Dyke which is an ancient scheduled monument is nearby.

This size of development is an import from the US where they are much more common. America is a much bigger and more spacious country than ours and even there, there are strict rules about location: these mega farms cannot be near dwellings or populated areas. In Leighton there are 30 houses nearby, a village hall and the primary school. The village hall where the schoolchildren have lunch is just 70 metres away. Slurry will be sluiced and hoovered up twice daily and will be spread on the surrounding land, which is in fact a flood plain and unsurprisingly floods frequently (leading to concerns that there won’t be enough land to spread the huge volume of slurry on and it will have to be stored and stirred on site). The currently quaint rural school will be a less attractive option to parents if it is next to an industrial-scale farm. The school has about 70 pupils at present and with fewer pupils it could close – there is general pressure on small rural schools anyway as Powys County Council looks to cut its costs.

A consequence of the school closing would be the closure of the village hall. The hall is used by the school  at lunchtime, assemblies, plays etc and the school pay towards its use. If the school goes, the hall may close too. The hall is a popular local venue for wedding receptions, funerals, private parties and the village ball – the hall would be less likely popular in the shadow of the mega-diary, especially if the concerns about smell, dust and noise are realised.

Many local people are against it but it has split the community because it is a farming issue. Some people support what the farmer is trying to do, thinking large scale diary farming like this is the only way forward. In a village where everyone knows everyone it has fostered bad feeling and sniping. Many keep their opinions to themselves for fear of being seen to support the wrong side. Dissenters within the farming community keep their views private. What I have noticed is that the farming community sticks together even if they don’t agree with what this farmer is trying to do. It is hard to have a reasoned debate and arguments have debased into ‘locals’ versus ‘incomers’ and people ‘not understanding the countryside’ which is just a fallback some use when they can’t argue their case. There is a certain irony that those who support this development would oppose it if were a standard (non-farm) factory on this scale in this location pumping out 500,000 litres of methane a day (as this farm will do).

Other organisations against the development include the National Trust and the Countryside Council for Wales who are concerned that this will greatly affect the countryside. Nationally there isn’t universal support in the farming community either for these type of mega-diaries with some polls suggesting only a 60/40 split slightly in favour.

The wider issue as well is the affect this will have on the countryside. The bucolic view of the countryside and farming in many people’s minds is happy cows chewing the cud on sunny spring days. But these huge farms could soon see an end to animals in fields. Pigs and chickens are already housed in large indoor sheds and it is rare to see either animal in farmed fields these days. There has been little debate about this consequence of mega-farming and I hope this is one of the reasons why the Welsh Government have called this in. One of the problems of planning law is it very often only takes a local view of things but an application like this could set a precedent for animal-free fields. Only sheep will be left to graze outside but it probably won’t be long before a clever ‘solution’ will be found to house sheep indoors all year round too.

Economics

Diary farming is suffering in the UK as prices have been hammered down by supermarkets resulting in farmers selling milk at a loss. Ten years ago there were 30,000 diary farms in the UK, now there are just 11,000. However a race to the bottom to make things cheaper and cheaper will never succeed.

These are very expensive developments to build and require a lot of money to do so. This farmer has bought the land at Lower Leighton, another nearby farm at auction for £4.85m and has secured the finance to build this mega-diary. Combined this is likely to top £10m. Even with funding a development like this would be out of the reach of most dairy farmers. If this development goes ahead and it produces cheap milk, what effect will that have on smaller diary farms? It will only increase the pressure on them to reduce their prices, possibly to the extent that they go out of business. This is a real concern in the farming community.

It has been estimated that there would only need to be 250 of these mega diaries (of different sizes) in the whole of the UK to replace the current UK herd of 1.8million head of cattle. What would happen to the other diary farmers? Personally, I cannot see how developments like this are good for the farming industry as a whole. They will only benefit some (already well-off) individuals.

And finally if developments like this go ahead and produce milk more profitably, supermarkets will certainly pressure farmers to reduce prices. Producing ever cheaper milk is not going to alleviate the problems diary farmers are having. What is needed is legislation to enforce a basic price for milk. Consumers have become too used to cheap food which has been driven by the supermarkets. Only a legal framework can ensure the future of UK diary farming, not a race to the bottom of ever cheaper milk. It’s just not sustainable.

 

* The reason it was judged twice by the planning committee was the council’s constitution had changed and they took legal advice and were advised to re-look at it. The second group was made up of different council members.