While the CLA has welcomed news of a General Election in the hope that this might finally rid us of the political impasse of the last few years, our collective hope of resolving the current state of play needs to be tempered. The previous December General Election, held in 1923, resulted in a hung parliament, and an additional election 10 months later.
There is so much more than Brexit to life, and the CLA (Country Land and Business Association) will campaign to ensure that the rural economy is not forgotten during the five-week period of doorstep-trampling and frenetic sloganeering.
We hope that candidates of all persuasions will be explicit in their commitment to our countryside, rural communities, farmers and businesses. They can do this by laying out robust and ambitious plans to unlock the potential of the rural economy, particularly in recognising the unique role it plays in delivering growth and jobs, while answering society’s demands for food production and action on the environment.
The most pressing issue remains poor digital connectivity as it impacts on every rural business. In the last year we’ve made substantial progress in our relations within the industry and with operators, underlined by a recent government pledge to deliver high-quality 4G mobile coverage to 95 per cent of the UK by 2025. Any incoming government should honour or improve on this commitment.
The rural economy also requires places for people to live and work, so a more positive approach to appropriate development is called for too. Many planning authorities are writing off villages as unsustainable based on outdated criteria like libraries and telephone boxes rather than considering broadband and social capital.
Rural tourism, which is estimated to be worth more than £18.5bn a year to the UK economy, has a huge role to play and realising its additional untapped potential will benefit rural communities immensely. But it needs support in terms of rural development funding and clear guidance on how tourism businesses will be able to source labour post-Brexit.
The proposed Agriculture Bill will result in a major restructuring of the food and farming sector, inclusive of the agri-food supply chain which is crucial to trade. However, a change in government may result in substantial changes to this Bill. The transitioning period away from direct support to farmers into payments for environmental improvements will require time to soften the impacts of a new fiscal framework. There is frustration due to the lack of both certainty and continuity of this Bill beyond the current Parliament.
Profitable farming can go hand in hand with delivering public goods such as enhancing the environment and sequestering carbon but only through long-term business planning that must be backed by the certainty of ongoing investment by Government, which should include direct investment in skills and productivity.
The CLA has a long track record of engaging and leading the debate and actions to tackle climate change, producing the first UK-based carbon accounting tool for land managers in 2005. A future government must recognise the importance of landowners in addressing climate change, and also commit to invest in research and development to address this issue.
Aside from these ‘bread and butter’ issues, the CLA recognises the importance of Brexit-related matters affecting the countryside and wants to ensure that agriculture and rural communities are not written off as collateral damage in any future government’s negotiations with the EU, or future trade deals outside of it.
It is for an incoming government to ensure there is a policy framework which supports profitable farming, food production and the environment, alongside a tariff regime which would prevent undercutting the UK market with products of lower environmental or animal welfare standards. A ComRes survey found that 84 per cent want food imports to match UK standards. ‘Brand Britain’ is renowned for its high quality agricultural produce, and there are definite niche markets abroad with ample opportunities to be capitalised on.
This election is an opportunity for all political parties to regain the trust of the countryside. We hope they take their chance.
Dorothy Fairburn is North regional director of The Country Land & Business Association