Rural Yorkshire: What is needed for a more profitable farming sector - Country Land and Business Association's Mark Tufnell

WHEN I became CLA (Country Land and Business Association) President in November last year, I set three main goals for my term in office: the transition towards a more sustainable and profitable farming sector, fighting climate change and nature decline, and creating prosperity throughout the rural economy.

Here I would like to focus on the latter, particularly in the context of our Rural Powerhouse campaign. According to Defra’s figures, the rural economy – through no fault of its own – is 18 per cent less productive than the national average, and closing this gap would add £43bn to the economy.

Those of us who live in the countryside understand the need to create economic growth in rural communities. Frustratingly, it does not appear to be so obvious in Whitehall.

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When we launched our Rural Powerhouse campaign in 2019, we identified that the barriers to improving productivity fall into five main areas: lack of infrastructure, poor access to skills and training, an outdated planning system, an overly complex tax system and a lack of profitability in the farming sector without direct government support.

Pic: James Hardisty.

Since then, we have had to add another area of focus – government processes, which so often allow good rural policymaking to fall between the cracks of Whitehall departments.

This problem reminds us that rural policy is not for Defra alone. It is for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, as well as numerous other departments. The same is true in Wales, where many key policy areas are devolved.

The long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper has now been published by Michael Gove. We hoped the UK Government would register its ambition to deliver growth across the whole country, including the countryside.

Sadly, the paper failed this most basic of tests. This White Paper was billed as a programme for economic growth in left behind areas – but it is nothing of the sort. Rural communities desperately needed an ambitious and robust plan to create jobs, share prosperity and strengthen communities, but Government has failed to deliver it.

Rural voters put their faith in this government, but this White Paper suggests that government doesn’t understand them, their needs or their aspirations. I registered this concern with Ministers, but was told we should wait for further policy announcements on the National Food Strategy, the Rural Proofing paper and the Planning Bill.

For those of us who have waited so long for a meaningful growth strategy, the fear is that the promised ‘jam tomorrow’ may never be realised. For this reason, the CLA will become even more vocal in the months ahead, not least as we look forward to the report of one of the biggest parliamentary inquiries ever into the health of the rural economy, in which the CLA has played the leading support role.

Policies favoured by the Country Land and Business Association, which would unlock rural economic growth in Yorkshire and beyond, include:

- Creating a planning regime that allows disused buildings to be converted into modern workspaces;

- Allowing sensible, small scale housing developments to breathe new life into rural communities;

- Simplifying the tax system to encourage business diversification;

- Making the current 12.5 per cent VAT rate for tourism businesses permanent to bring the UK in line with European holiday destinations;

- Speeding up the delivery of gigabit broadband and 4G for all rural communities.

Too often the Government treats the countryside as a museum, erring on the side of no development and low investment. But we desperately need policies designed to unlock the potential of the countryside.

Within Yorkshire, the CLA is working with farming and rural organisations as part of the Grow Yorkshire initiative which was started by the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, leading the way for other LEPs to follow nationally in supporting parity of the rural economy with that of urban areas. It isn’t too late.

We call on Government to listen carefully to the ambitions of rural businesses and the communities they support. We are ready and raring to go, and want to work with Ministers to create prosperity across the countryside.

Mark Tufnell is president of the Country Land and Business Association.

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