HEREFORDSHIRE Council has been accused of a lack of transparency after hiding parts of a public report which recommended that the authority should retain some of the county's smallholding estates.

This advice was ignored before the council voted to sell off all of its smallholdings, affecting 42 tenants, in December 2015.

However, the recommendation in the report, commissioned by the council to inform its review of its smallholdings policy, was not made publicly available and the National Farmers Union (NFU) had to fight to make further details public.

Following a complaint by the NFU, the council was last week ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to reveal sections of the report which show that it was advised to sell off only part of its smallholdings estate and to “continue to provide a means for first generation farmers to enter the industry".

In its decision notice, the ICO said: “The redaction of the [options and recommendation] section in its entirety prevents the public from understanding this and removes the ability of the public to understand the reasons why a particular option was highlighted.”

The report was carried out by specialist property consultant Fisher German and the council had refused to disclose Fisher German’s recommendation on the grounds that it was “commercially sensitive” in its entirety.

The NFU disagreed with this assessment and so did the ICO.

NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: “Seeing this report provides those tenant farmers in Herefordshire with vindication in terms of their view of the importance of the county farm estate; but its cold comfort as it’s too late to reverse the council’s heart-breaking and short-sighted decision.

“The NFU has been concerned for a long time about Herefordshire Council’s refusal to disclose more of the Fisher German report as we were keen to ensure that the council’s review of its smallholdings estate was conducted transparently."

She said communication from the council during the last three years had been poor.

She added: "We can only hope that, following this latest revelation in Herefordshire, the council takes a long, hard look at how it is treating its tenant farmers; many of whom are facing the devastating loss of both their livelihoods and their homes. These tenants deserve a lot better."

The council's general overview and scrutiny committee had also recommended a partial sale and to retain a reduced estate of starter and progression farms.

The NFU believes that had the Fisher German report been made more widely available, it would have shown that the authority had been recommended to safeguard part of the estate for the next generation.

Clare Greener, Herefordshire NFU county adviser and tenants lead, said the union would continue its support for the sector and affected members as the 4,800 acres are sold.

A Herefordshire Council spokesman said the initial draft Fisher German report was incomplete and never finalised, which is why the report was not relied upon by the council in any decision making.

They added: "Herefordshire Council is committed to its duty of care to the local community and to tenants. As we find alternative ways to fund the statutory services we have to provide, we need to prioritise which activities the council can support.

"The smallholdings disposal plan will help us ensure best value for money for taxpayers."