Revealed: how we pay our richest landowners millions in subsidies

Prince Charles, Serco and the Duke of Westminster - an NS investigation reveals who benefits from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

Were David Cameron to announce tomorrow that some of the wealthiest landowners in the country would receive millions in subsidies from the taxpayer, there would be predictable outrage. Yet, in the form of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), such a programme already exists. The average British household contributes £245 a year to the CAP, most of which, a New Statesman investigation has found, is handed to the wealthiest landowners. Originally established with the intention of supporting small farmers and reducing Europe’s reliance on food imports, the CAP, which accounts for 43 per cent (€55bn) of the EU budget, has become a slush fund for assorted dukes, earls and princes.

A freedom of information request by the NS to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that claimants last year included the Duke of Westminster (net worth: £7.4bn), who was paid £748,716 for his ownership of Grosvenor Farms, the Duke of Buccleuch (£180m), who received £260,273, the Duke of Devonshire (£700m), who received £251,729, and the Duke of Atholl, who was paid £231,188 for his 145,000 acre Blair Castle Estate.

It was also a lucrative year for the Windsor family. The Queen received £415,817 for The Royal Farms and £314,811 for the Duchy of Lancaster, while Prince Charles was paid £127,868 for the Duchy of Cornwall. Similarly well remunerated was Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar, who netted £273,905 for his 2,000 acre Glympton Estate in Oxfordshire, alleged to have been purchased with the proceeds of the 1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia.

Revealed: what we paid out in 2011 to the landowners of the United Kingdom

Payments are based on acreage alone, and take no account of wealth, making the scheme one of the most regressive imaginable - the more you own, the more you get. In addition, since the EU’s definition of “farmer” does not require individuals to actively produce food or other agricultural products, many recipients are, in effect, paid not to farm. The largest individual UK beneficiary is Sir Richard Sutton, who was paid £1.7m for his Settled Estates, the 6,500-acre property he inherited with his baronetcy in 1981, despite net assets of £136.5m.

Other unlikely recipients include Eton College, which received £4,622, Severn Trent Water, which was paid £779,436, and outsourcing company Serco, currently cashing in on the government’s privatisation of NHS services, which, courtesy of the public, received £2.7m.

With the exception of Spain, there is no European country in which land is more unequally distributed than Britain, with 70 per cent of acreage held by just 0.28 per cent of the population, or 158,000 families.

Aware that it cannot legitimately sustain such corporate welfare at a time of austerity, the EU has vowed to reform the programme by capping direct payments at  €300,000 and by ensuring that only "active" farmers receive subsidy. But even under these proposals, due to be implemented in 2014, aid will still be provided to landowners who derive just five per cent of their annual revenue from agricultural activity, whilst, in the case of the cap, the biggest farms will simply avoid it through restructuring.

The Conservative Party now rarely misses a chance to bash Brussels bureaucrats, yet, due to its enduring ties to the landed gentry, one hears little from it about the inequity of the CAP or the order it helps sustain. But as the Thatcherite dream of a property-owning democracy recedes, it should recognise that land reform is now both a political and an economic necessity.

The full version of this piece appears in tomorrow's New Statesman.

Prince Charles with the Duke of Westminster, both of whom benefited from the CAP last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.