THE current media frenzy surrounding the Tory leadership battle is dominated by details around Brexit, and the Country Land and Business Association is seeking to ensure that agriculture and rural communities are not forgotten.
Even though the agricultural sector represents less than one per cent of the British economy, it accounts for 70 per cent of the land use. The way this land is managed has an impact on food production, the environment, and the landscapes which support a thriving tourism industry. The UK food and drinks industry employs 3.9 million people, and adds nearly £27bn to our economy.
And a survey of 3,000 rural voters showed that the overwhelming majority thought that the Conservatives do not understand life in the countryside. Without greater political recognition and representation, rural areas, and everyone working and living there, will be left behind.
It is why CLA president Tim Breitmeyer wrote letters to Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, calling on them to back our five rural pledges – whoever is the next incumbent of 10 Downing Street will need to make a very public commitment in recognising and fulfilling the countryside’s needs. The letter highlights that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to rural policy-making cannot continue.
Our first pledge calls for Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt to introduce a long-term funding settlement for agriculture, forestry and the environment. Current funding commitments expire at the end of this Parliament with no guarantee that sufficient funds will be made available.
This comes as the Conservative Party hopes to deliver its ambitious environmental agenda whilst helping the industry move away from the Common Agricultural Policy. This lack of certainty is stifling investment as businesses wait to see what will happen next.
Both candidates have also been encouraged to commit to prohibiting food products produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards from coming into the UK. It comes as farmers warn the Government that the UK must export its high standards and not accept lower standards from elsewhere.
For example, the industry fears that allowing the import of products such as chlorinated chicken will undermine farmers who will be unable to compete with cheaper low-standard imports.
Last week, I attended an event at Westminster where more than 40 MPs and peers pledged their support to our #4GForAll campaign, which aims to improve mobile coverage in the countryside and end the ‘rural-urban digital divide’.
Our letter calls on both candidates to implement steps such as legally binding mobile targets and public investment. This could help ensure the rural economy maximise the connectivity opportunities taken for granted in many urban areas.
Another pledge notes how landowners must be at the heart of rural housing delivery. The CLA has called for changes to the tax system through, for example, providing tax incentives to aid affordable housing delivery. This, alongside providing greater certainty via the planning system at an earlier stage, could encourage land to be brought forward quickly for housing.
Finally, we have urged Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt to create a taxation system which works for rural businesses. Many rural businesses have multiple elements, all of which are taxed differently despite forming part of a single business.
Creating a single rural business unit to allow all these elements to be taxed as a single entity would help reduce administration and better reflect the reality of these businesses.
Aside from these pledges, the CLA recognises the importance of issues affecting the countryside directly related to Brexit and wants to ensure that agriculture and rural communities are not written off as collateral damage.
If the UK leaves without arrangements in place for free and frictionless trade with the EU, it would have major repercussions for farming, food production and the environment.
Within the region, the CLA is standing shoulder to shoulder with farming and rural organisations across Yorkshire as part of the Grow Yorkshire partnership in championing a resilient and prosperous countryside.
It would be fantastic if politicians from all persuasions – starting with the new Prime Minister – can give their wholehearted commitment to the UK’s rural areas.
People who live and work in Yorkshire’s countryside know how to adapt to change, and along with greater political certainty, the next Government can create a more positive environment for rural businesses giving them the confidence to make the new investments needed for a strong rural economy in future.
Dorothy Fairburn is regional director of CLA North.