Farmer Mounts Battle in Bid to Save Livelihood

An Aire Valley dairy farmer under serious threat of losing his livelihood has taken up the gauntlet in a bid to enlist public support in opposition to two new planning applications to build on the land his family has farmed for over 100 years.

The Downs family, tenant farmers at Milnerfield Farm in Primrose Lane, Bingley, since 1902, face eviction if plans by landowners, the Hartley Property Group, to build a new business park, innovation and technology centre on greenbelt land in the Saltaire buffer zone get the go ahead.

David Downs and his three-year-old son Gabriel with some of the long-established Milnerfield dairy herd

David Downs and his three-year-old son Gabriel with some of the long-established Milnerfield dairy herd

David Downs, 45, who is taking over the agricultural tenancy of the farm from his father Keith Downs, is urging local residents and those who value the Aire Valley buffer area to get their objections in before the consultation period ends on January 1, 2016.

A Milnerfield Action Group has already been formed and to date some 400 people have signed up to show their support.

Milnerfield Farm was part of the Salts Mill Estate, the philanthropic brainchild of Sir Titus Salt, and essentially the ‘parkland setting’ for the ill-fated Milnerfield Mansion (of Bill Bryson fame), built for Titus junior.

David said: “Two applications submitted by The Trustees of the KDPS (Kingsbridge Directors Pension Scheme) and the University of Bradford are just the latest tactic by a wealthy landlord to dispossess a farming family who have milked cows near the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire for over a hundred years.

“Under legislation rooted in a time when food and farmers were a valued part of both the local economy and community, tenants were given security of tenure, which allowed them continuity to invest and develop.

“On that basis we have successfully supplied local residents and businesses with ‘low food mile’ quality dairy products since 1902 and my grandfather, the late Harry Downs, could recall deliveries to the mansion itself before its demolition.

“We had little contact with our landlords. We paid our rent and they left us to farm. It was only when the formal process of myself taking over the tenancy began that relations with the landlords intensified and the situation became difficult.”

The legislation provides a set of requirements which a possible successor to a tenancy must meet and David set about demonstrating his eligibility and suitability to his landlords. However, they challenged his right to succession, which went to tribunal.

After a two-day hearing, the tribunal found in David’s favour. He thought he was back on course to verify his standing to become tenant farmer.

“And that’s when the applications for planning consent began,” said David. He explained: “The same legislation that gives a tenant security and continuity also gives provision and protection for landlords, and in one particular part provides that a 12 months’ notice to quit can be given where planning consent is granted for a non-agricultural use.

“It is for this reason that we find planning applications submitted for an innovation and technology centre at Milnerfield on the footprint of a Victorian ‘model’ farm that is one of the last remaining examples of its kind in the country, with its classic C-shape buildings around a central courtyard and built to an extremely high specification in its heyday.

“Should the applications go through, these unique farm buildings would be demolished – only the farmhouse would remain for potential business use as part of the development - while 76 acres of green belt pasture would be lost to experimental and innovation use in conjunction with the centre.

“It could signal an end to a viable and vibrant family-run farming legacy and dynasty that has stewarded this land for well over a century, employs local people and supplies local businesses and residents.

“It will also devastate both the setting and essence of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and decimate the green belt - the last parcel of undeveloped land which separates the sprawl that extends from Kildwick down the Aire Valley to Bingley from the massive urban conurbations of Shipley, Bradford, Leeds and on.

“What value do we really put on our dairy industry, our local suppliers and the local community? Does modern innovation and technology ‘trump’ this?”

David keeps 180 dairy cows on the farm, and lives there with his wife Stella and sons Leyton, 5, and Gabriel, 3.

People wishing to make their views known should do so by the beginning of the New Year by visiting the Milnerfield Action Group facebook page, or by contacting David Downs on 07590 778282.

Jennifer Mackenzie

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