He left the meeting in a right old huff, chuntering that it was a bad day for farming and dismissing one of the planning officials as a comedian, after his scheme to build a hilltop restaurant on his Oxfordshire farm was flatly turned down.
But Jeremy Clarkson, petrolhead turned farming reality TV show star, may be heartened by the concern and interest in his case that rippled through the Cotswolds this week.
Fellow farmers, other food producers and local residents, even some who really don’t like Clarkson’s take-no-prisoners style, argued that the case illustrated a disconnect between planners and the needs of modern farmers to find new, imaginative ways of making a living.
“It’s a real shame,” said Pete Ledbury, who farms with his wife, Emma, at the North Cotswolds Dairy just a few miles from Clarkson’s Diddly Squat farm. “We know that we have to diversify to make a living and create more jobs for the countryside. Turning down projects like this doesn’t help. I think it’s pretty shortsighted of the planners.”
Emma Ledbury spelled out the pressure that farms such as theirs were under. In recent years they have lost 40 of their 100-strong herd of pedigree holstein cattle to bovine tuberculosis, drastically cutting their chances of turning a profit. It costs 32p to produce a litre of milk, for which supermarket buyers have been paying them about 28p.
Selling milk directly to the customer via a vending machine at the Diddly Squat farm shop for a fairer price has helped keep them going and they were hoping to provide milk, cream and butter to the restaurant. Those hopes appear to have been dashed. “British farming is in a mess,” she said.
Clarkson argued at a West Oxfordshire district council planning meeting that his restaurant, which he wanted to open in a converted lambing shed, was the sort of diversification project farmers needed to undertake to survive. His scheme, the meeting was told, would create jobs for up to 25 people and give local farmers and other food producers a more lucrative market for their goods than the supermarkets. It would also shorten the supply chain and reduce food miles.
Watch: Clarkson’s Diddly Squat farm shop announces surprise temporary closure
Clarkson’s business plan for the restaurant revealed that government subsidy accounts for more than 85% of his farm’s profit but the basic payment scheme income – the current main financial support system for farming – is to reduce from £83,000 a year to zero by 2028.
The planning subcommittee rejected the restaurant after hearing complaints that the popularity of the TV star’s Amazon Prime show Clarkson’s Farm had caused traffic chaos as fans flocked to his farm shop – and being advised by officials that its prominent position in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) meant it should be turned down.
Max Abbott, who owns the bakery Sourdough Revolution in Lechlade and had hoped to supply bread to the restaurant, was furious.
“There’s a huge drive to allow farms to diversify, to attract more people, more money and break down the gap between farm and plate,” he said. “Jeremy is employing people, bringing in money. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but what the council is doing seems absurd.”
In the village of Chadlington, just down the hill from the farm, there are plenty of people fed up with the disruption that Clarkson’s shop has caused and are dead set against the restaurant.
But many others, such as Victoria Steffens, who works in a village shop, said it was mainly newcomers who were against the restaurant scheme. “The locals, the people who have been here a long time, realise that businesses that provide new jobs have to be a good thing. Jeremy Clarkson is Marmite but I’m backing him.”
Merilyn Davies, a district councillor and one of only two committee members who supported the restaurant plan, added: “I never thought I’d agree with Jeremy Clarkson. He rubs some people up the wrong way but I think his idea of local farmers working as a cooperative to supply the restaurant was interesting. We have to give the AONB weight but it’s not all about bats and newts. We have to remember people live here too.”
While there are many very rich people who live in the area, Davies said there were pockets of deprivation and people had to leave for Oxford, Abingdon or further afield to find work. “Farming is an important part of rural Britain. If we want it to be part of our future, we have to be creative.”
Like him or loathe him, Clarkson’s televised farming – and planning – adventures are putting the microscope on rural issues. Back at the North Cotswolds Dairy, Pete Ledbury said the show and the planning application had shown at least one thing: “Food is hard to produce and it pays bugger all.”