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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage