Julian Sturdy interview: We need farming industry making money to get green benefits

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer,  in his constituency in the village of Knapton.
Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, in his constituency in the village of Knapton.
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He has local health, transport and education issues to deal with, but North Yorkshire MP Julian Sturdy’s main focus is how his fellow farmers will deal with the “huge challenge” of the post-Brexit world. Rob Parsons reports.

Over the many months the devolution saga has dragged on in Yorkshire, it has almost become easy to lose sight of the tangible benefits the transfer of powers and money from central Government will bring.

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, in his York office.

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, in his York office.

But MP Julian Sturdy, whose York Outer constituency takes in the frequently congested ring road north of the city, has one obvious attraction at the forefront of his mind.

With the road under local authority control and holding back the economic growth of the city, so far the only investment has been money to improve the roundabouts, with the long-term solution of a dual carriageway frustratingly out of reach.

“The big thing I would say about what could we benefit from in York from devolution, potentially that is a way we might deliver the long-term benefits we need for the northern ring road, through devolved transport funding,” he said.

A keen supporter of devolution, the Conservative former Harrogate councillor was a proponent of a Greater Yorkshire deal, taking in all of the region except the south.

A lot of the focus has been on the environment; that is right because it is important, but actually we need a successful agriculture and farming industry that is making money to get the environmental benefits.

Julian Sturdy

But with cities like Manchester now racing away with its devolved powers and Yorkshire at risk of being left behind, he is impatient for progress of any kind to be made. “I just think we have to make it happen,” he says. “If we continue to just talk about it for another couple of years it will be a travesty.”

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post from his office a few minutes from York city centre, his next appointment is meeting local NHS officials, who he says are hampered by the Government’s formula for deciding funding in local areas.

Echoing the concerns of other elected officials in North Yorkshire, he says the funding per patient fails to sufficiently take into account the difficulty of providing services to an older population spread over a wider rural area.

“It’s not a huge thing but the danger is, it is going to spill over, that is why we are talking to the hospital, to the clinical commissioning group, regularly.”

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, in his constituency in the village of Knapton.

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, in his constituency in the village of Knapton.

Leaving aside local issues, such as the ability of the University of York to attract students from abroad with technology and science skills after Brexit, by 
far the biggest issue on Mr Sturdy’s mind is the future of 
agriculture.

A former farmer and agricultural college student, the MP recently advocated the introduction of a GCSE in Agriculture to allow young people working in the area to flourish “at the earliest possible opportunity”.

And he says the imminent departure of the UK from the European Union, while presenting a huge challenge as the reams of EU rules, regulations and subsidies are ditched, is an exciting prospect.

Setting out his vision for farming post-Brexit in a speech last month, Environment Secretary Michael Gove proposed farmers being paid for “public goods” such as access to the countryside and planting meadows, rather than the amount of land they own.

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer,  in his York office.

Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, in his York office.

An Agricultural Bill setting out more details is now keenly awaited across the sector, and though subsidies are guaranteed at the EU level until 2022, Mr Sturdy says there is a feeling of uncertainty for many.

“There is going to have to be some level of support going through, it is how that support continues”, he says. “Without that level of support, we know certain sides of agriculture will go.

“A lot of the focus has been on the environment; that is right because it is important, but actually we need a successful agriculture and farming industry that is making money to get the environmental benefits.

“If you have a farming sector that is losing money or going to the wall, they are not going to have the ability to put the work and effort into the environmental benefits we see in the Dales and across our great county.”

The sheer size of Yorkshire and the diversity of its agriculture, from its Dales sheep farmers to carrot producers in the Vale of York and maltsters in Castleford and Flamborough, puts the region in a great position, he says.

“All the different sectors across agriculture are covered in Yorkshire, and we have the two National Parks, so I think Yorkshire will be an interesting test-bed as to how the new policy is going to go and how the new agricultural policy is going to unfold on those different sectors.”

A member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Mr Sturdy has been well placed to observe the re-emergence of green issues on the political agenda.

The recent announcement of a 25-year environmental plan by Theresa May and Michael Gove was one of a slew of eye-catching proclamations, covering everything from plastic cups to a ban on ivory sales.

Though he believes the Prime Minister to be sincere in her interest in the subject, he is realistic that policies are driven by what captures the imagination of the electorate.

“We know for certain that the environment is rising up the political league table of what people are concerned about. It is something the younger generation are raising a lot more as well.

“Whenever these things start happening all the political parties start talking about these things, but ultimately, you can talk about it but can you actually deliver on it?”