Whitehall insider Sarah Hendry brings fresh insight to fight for rural cause

Political uncertainty has added extra 'spice' to the role of lobbying the Government for a progressive policy for the countryside, according to a former civil servant now heading up the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).

Sarah Hendry spent more than 25 years working in the civil service, including 12 years as a director in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), but she now finds herself on the outside looking in, having been appointed as director general of the CLA towards the end of last year.

The CLA represents 30,000 members across rural England and Wales and in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Ms Hendry said she hoped her experience of the mechanisms of Whitehall can benefit landowners and rural businesses.

In a post-Brexit era, rural lobby groups like the CLA will have greater direct access to those charged with devising policies for the countryside.

“Hopefully one of the things I bring to the CLA is a good insight into how government works and how decision making and policy making is done, and I hope we can really use that to the benefit of CLA members,” Ms Hendry said.

“In career terms I was interested in coming out of government and working for another organisation. The political circumstances are the additional spice at this time.

“I think it (the repatriation of domestic policy making from Europe) gives the CLA more opportunities. We will be, by definition, much closer to where the policy decisions will be made which gives us more time and space to influence things.

“I’m excited about it. It’s a once-in-a-generation moment where we can do things differently. Let’s seize it and make the best of it.”

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Ahead of this week’s Commons vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal with the EU, the CLA wrote to MPs in England and Wales urging them to avoid a no deal. Such an outcome, Ms Hendry said, would have “a potentially devastating effect on rural businesses”.

“Our top message to those who are making the decisions is don’t underestimate the consequences for farmers and the rural community. We think there needs to be a deal.”

Should a no deal scenario be avoided, Ms Hendry said there are opportunities to harness the rural economy in a way better served by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

“Whatever anyone’s views are over Brexit, one of the areas where there are huge opportunities is being able to tailor something to our national and local circumstances,” she said.

Having worked on CAP reform at Defra, Ms Hendry acknowledged that working within pan-European rules came with difficulties, saying: “Any process where you are trying to find something that a large number of countries can play with is bound to be frustrating and tends to take you to the lowest common denomination type of agreement.

“In future, I think we won’t need to have to do it (agricultural policy reform) in cycles like at EU level. We should have more flexibility to try things and if they don’t work, move on relatively quickly, and I hope the Government will be minded to work like this.”

For the full interview with Ms Hendry, see Saturday’s Country Week.