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.