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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.