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Council leader denies “rumours” farms will be sold to pay off SEND debt

Devon county farms will not be sold, the county council leader has promised.

John Hart (Conservative) made the pledge after peer Julian Brazil (Lib Dem) said he had “heard rumours” that they could be sold to pay back the growing overspend on supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Total operating overspend for the service is expected to be £127m at the end of this month, rising to £153m by March 2024.

Councils across the country have been instructed by the government to keep this excess spending in separate accounts separate from the main budget while it develops a new funding model – an arrangement recently extended until 2026.

Negotiations are ongoing between Devon and the Government over what will happen to the overall – essentially debt – and who will be responsible for paying it back.

He will express this on Wednesday at the government meeting [8 March]Cllr Brazil said: “I think at some stage we need to have a clearer understanding of what it is [overspend] will mean within the council.

“I’ve heard rumors that we’re going to flog all our farms to pay it off. Those are the rumors I hear.”

In response, Director Hart said, “I will tell you categorically now, Director Brazil, that we are not selling the farm… the farm is not on the market. They never were, and when I took over the leadership of this council I said it was one of the jewels in our crown that I was most proud of.”

Labor group leader Cllr Carol Whitton said she “welcomed” the comments, adding: “It really is a real asset for the county council to hold and brings in useful income.”

She continued, “It’s a beacon in our rural agricultural region for best practices and for helping people in this particular industry.”

The Devon County Farms estate contains 3,873 hectares (9,570 acres) of farmland and includes 65 fully equipped residential dairy and mixed livestock farms.

According to the county council, the aim of the estates is to “give people their first opportunity to farm, but with a view to providing them with an independent livelihood from farming within a reasonable time frame”.

Liberal Democrat councilor Alistair Dewhirst said Mr Hart’s pledge was “really important… because there are a lot of people who are really concerned about the situation at Devon County Council with these massive, huge overspends that are kind of hidden from public view, but we all know ‘that there is’.

Colleagues Cllr Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative), cabinet member for children’s services, said the council was trying to get a resolution on SEND overspending, adding: “I’m sure we’ll sort it out.”

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