Levelling up must do more to embrace farming and rural economy’s potential – Anne McIntosh

FARMERS are facing new challenges as the Government moves from support for active farming to environmental gain for public good while the Levelling Up White Paper risks marginalising rural communities.

To what extent has farming been overlooked by the Levelling Up White Paper? Former Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh poses the question.
To what extent has farming been overlooked by the Levelling Up White Paper? Former Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh poses the question.

For tenant farmers, common land and the rights of graziers are especially vexing and seem to land in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)’s ‘too hard to handle’ box.

In the view of the Tenant Farmers Association, it is vitally important that tenant farmers have fair access to all of the new financial assistance schemes being developed by Defra, including those being introduced under the umbrella of the Environmental Land Management Scheme. 

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Equally, we want to avoid farm tenants losing access to land because their landlords wish to take it back in hand either to join Government-funded schemes or to take part in private schemes for biodiversity net gain, carbon sequestration or other ecosystems services. 

Baorness McIntosh of Pickering is a Tory peer and former MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey.

We need to hear how Defra plans to stitch together its various plans being developed in silos into a coherent whole. 

Meanwhile the National Farmers Union (NFU) is calling for a clear vision for British agriculture to overcome the labour, trade and funding challenges facing the industry.

While Environment Secretary George Eustice has announced more funding for farmers, including plans for a programme of financial support for farmers in the pig, cattle sheep and poultry sectors, the NFU have highlighted the consequences of the shortage of butchers, which has left farms overflowing with piglets and this has led to a mass cull.

The current backlog of pigs on farms is estimated to be at least 200,000 and at least 35,000 of the animals have been destroyed. This sad situation is deemed to be due to a shortage of abattoir workers through labour supply caused by both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Should the Levelling Up White Paper devoted more attention to rural issues?

Wage increases for fruit and vegetable growers is likely to lead to a risk of food inflation and to British growers going out of business, according to the NFU who are urging Defra to address the issue.

The NFU wants the Government to invest in British farming to sell more home-grown food within the UK and help farmers to export it; to ensure farmers can get a fair deal with supermarkets, to reform immigration policy to allow more seasonal farm workers and to reform farm subsidies in a way that encourages food production as well as meeting environmental objectives.

In 332 pages of the Government’s recent White Paper on levelling up, there are only 39 references to rural matters which suggests a huge opportunity missed from a rural perspective.

The commitment to both full fibre and 4G connectivity is there but pushed back from 2025 to 2030. Nearly half a million homes and around 125,000 businesses in rural areas have poor or slow broadband.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) would urge the Government to keep this high on the agenda as no modern business can function without the internet.

People across Yorkshire just want a good job and an affordable home, but both can be difficult to come by in rural areas. They were relying on the Government’s levelling up agenda to recognise the potential of the rural economy. But as far as we can tell those developing the ‘levelling up’ concept never even tried.

The rural economy is 18 per cent less productive than the national average. Reducing this gap could add up to £43bn to the national economy. Too often the Government treats the countryside as a museum, erring on the side of no development and low investment.

Government aside, the CLA is encouraging Local Enterprise Partnerships to help find solutions to the pressing realities experienced in rural areas.

Within Yorkshire, the CLA is working with farming and rural organisations as part of the Grow Yorkshire initiative and there is an urgent need for the Government to address the changes required to farm tenancy agreements to enable tenants to benefit from environment schemes for public good as we leave basic farm payments and stewardship schemes.

The issue of abattoir workers and wider employment concerns also need to be resolved, as well as unfair competition. In the interests of self-sufficiency and food security, we need to have a safe, sustainable and affordable supply of home-grown food. That remains the objective.

Baorness McIntosh of Pickering is a Tory peer and former MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey.

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