Abstract Economic development policy in rural areas has given high priority to building small factories. Previous studies have concentrated on the Development Commission's activities, ignoring the contribution of private developers, local authorities and English Estates in expanding the rural factory stock. Whatever the agency, little attention has been given to the processes by which tenants of industrial property are selected. A case study in Cornwall shows that the Development Commission supplied just 20% of the new small-factory floorspace (up to 500 m 2) 1976–1982. A survey of the tenant profiles of the new estates shows that their character varies according to the size of units and the estate management practices of the providing agency.