Region’s rural economy worth more than £17bn a year

COUNTRYSIDE campaigners have issued a rallying cry to the region’s politicians to fight the corner of our farmers, after it emerged that rural areas of Yorkshire contribute more than £17bn to the UK’s economy each year.

The 157th Great Yorkshire Show gets underway today. Emily Naylor, Kerry Pearson and Amy Hunt-Brown wearing garments designed by Sheffield Hallam University students for the Skipton Building Society Fashion show with Highland Cattle from Marrick Park Farm, Richmond. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Figures compiled by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) show that 54,000 rural businesses in Yorkshire and the Humber are responsible for outputting £17bn worth of goods and services, while employing more than 400,000 people.

Speaking at the opening day of the Great Yorkshire Show today, CLA President Henry Robinson will urge the region’s MPs to see for themselves the innovation, diversity and challenges faced by a multitude of different businesses across the Yorkshire countryside.

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The organisation is calling on the Government to provide greater support for rural businesses by championing a “genuinely universal” rural broadband service; to end discrimination against small, rural and family businesses in the tax system; and to ensure all business policies support rural growth.

Highlighting the contribution made by the large and diverse rural economy, Mr Robinson said it was crucial that Yorkshire’s MPs were “strident champions of rural business,” and that they were not forgotten in the midst of devolved powers.

Mr Robinson said: “It is vital that rural businesses feel the benefit of economic plans, like the Northern Powerhouse, and MPs here in Yorkshire will be vital in making the case for this.”

The figures, compiled from Office for National Statistics data, show more than 2.5m are employed in Yorkshire’s 14 rural constituencies, with Richmond contributing the most to the economy - just short of £2bn. Selby and Ainsty had the highest number in employment, 51,500.

The rallying cry comes as the National Farmers Union (NFU) has warned that despite Government commitments to ensure a future for hill farmers, estimates suggest they now have £50m a year less in funding due to changes in agri-environment schemes, which are increasingly hard for hill farmers to access.

Robin Milton, the NFU’s national uplands specialist, raised “serious concerns” over the sustainability of hill farming in the region, as the introduction of the new European Countryside Stewardship scheme, part of Common Agricultural Policy reform due later this year, makes the criteria for receiving funding more specific and less applicable to all.

He warned that the consequences of funding reductions to hill farmers went well beyond the business owners. Almost 25 per cent of all farmland in Yorkshire is classed as upland.

Mr Milton said: “At least half the farmers that were previously engaging in environmental management will not be able to do so and get paid for it.

“We are going to lose the ability to maintain the landscape and character of the hills, and see an awful lot of small businesses struggling in the short term, with the social and economic effect significant in the long term unless we address it soon.

“If you look at the farms now in the uplands compared to 20 years ago, the hedges are better and the walls have been re-built. It is these that are going to suffer - a wire fence is a lot cheaper than a wall.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We recognise the huge economic power of rural businesses and the countryside, where entrepreneurial activity often outstrips many other parts of the UK, and are working to unlock its potential for growth.

“The Secretary of State will shortly launch a 10 point rural productivity plan to help people make the most of the many opportunities to grow our rural economy and significantly improve productivity in the countryside.

“And we recently announced that over the next year at least 8,000 sets of open data held by Defra will be made freely available to the public. This will help businesses including those in rural areas to achieve their full potential.”

Writing in today’s The Yorkshire Post, honorary show director Bill Cowling said the onus was on farmers to be ambassadors for the industry amid the “challenges and uncertainties over the last decade.”

Henry Robinson: Why our farmers need greater support

On rural broadband, Mr Robinson said: “Too many people living and working in the countryside still suffer from poor or non-existent broadband connection. Access to fast, reliable broadband and mobile phone coverage is vital for the success of rural business and social inclusion in the countryside. Every home or business not connected to the internet, or with inadequate connection, is suffering a major disadvantage.

“It is time for Government to set out a specific Universal Service Obligation of at least 10 megabits per second on network providers for all rural homes and businesses, including the last 5 per cent. This is the only way to give rural communities and businesses the confidence that the discrimination they face will end.”

On ending tax discrimination: “Rural firms are often small, family run unincorporated businesses, yet too often Government policies are designed for incorporated, usually urban businesses. We are pressing Government to create a tax landscape that allows rural businesses to succeed and grow. The differential tax treatment was highlighted by the announcement in last week’s Summer Budget that the new compulsory National Living Wage will be paid for by decreases in corporation tax. As a result farmers and other rural businesses are presented with significant inflation in their wage costs and the cut in corporation tax that is supposed to pay for it will not benefit them.

“The tax system can also play an important role in tackling flood risk. Many more farmers and landowners could take action to protect land and communities from flooding if they could offset investment they make against tax. Under current plans, tax relief will only apply for businesses that part-fund flood defence schemes which are already in receipt of Environment Agency funding. We are pressing for this to be extended to private individuals as well as businesses, and for all approved flood defence schemes as well as those which have already been allocated funding.”

On ensuring all business policies support rural growth: “Rural businesses must be given the tools to compete on an equal footing with urban based competitors. As well as delivering on its promises for universal broadband, the Government also needs an approach to planning that gives rural businesses the confidence to make investments in the locally appropriate commercial and residential developments that will provide the jobs and homes necessary for the future.

“Proposed new legislation on enterprise, housing and taxation must work for rural businesses – for example, the proposed Enterprise Bill designed to support small businesses and job creation is welcome but the benefits of cutting red tape must be felt by rural businesses as well as those based in towns and cities. We ask Government to ensure that this reform does not fall by the wayside which, unfortunately, too many previous attempts to cut red tape have done.”