Tim Breitmeyer: Councils need to rethink attitude to rural development after Brexit

The rural economy has an important rile to play after Brexit.
The rural economy has an important rile to play after Brexit.
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Nothing makes a farmer’s blood boil more than naïve commenters extolling the beauties of the British landscape, and at the same time bemoaning the inconveniences of farming that get in the way of their enjoyment of the experience.

Yet there is widespread popular affection for our treasured landscapes, and most I hope recognise that the countryside is the result of centuries of careful cultivation.

While this will be key in the policy battles that lie ahead, we should continue to press home the message that our rural identity is interwoven with the core economic and social function of food production.

But these much-loved landscapes are also, as so many CLA members recognise, a key area of economic opportunity for landowning businesses. As I hit the road visiting our ever-popular county and country shows, I am reminded of just how valuable our countryside is as a visitor attraction.

Tourism in this country accounts for more than three million jobs and contributes about £130bn to GDP, and its value continues to grow. The BBC’s Countryfile, a programme that sells the rural experience to townies every Sunday, is one of the country’s most popular viewing habits. The desire to ‘escape to the country’ (also the title of another popular show) is a hankering in the population that translates into much-needed income across our rural communities. As farming continues to experience the buffeting of a global market place, the growing tourism market provides some reassuring resilience.

The opportunity is not new. Across the country, thousands of CLA members are running longstanding successful tourism and leisure businesses. It is increasingly wrong to talk of ‘farm diversifications’.

The stay-away and experience-based businesses are increasing in value and sophistication across rural England and Wales, and for some are becoming the main business, rather than the diversification they started out as.

This growth has been driven in part because of the far-reaching effect of the internet. Every new business can quickly attract customers from across the world, with some smart and increasingly simple use of digital marketing.

I am delighted that we will be hearing from some leading experts in this field later this month at the CLA’s Connectivity Summit.

It is also a smart way to repurpose assets, disused buildings and less productive areas of land that are often crying out for a new use.

That is why I am so frustrated by the reports I hear of some of our members’ experience with the red tape and obstructive attitude of some planning authorities.

Our report earlier this month showed how many businesses are put off by the costs, complexities and vagaries of the planning decision-making process. We have made some big advances on this in national policy, but there remains a barrier at local level.

One of our key messages in the months ahead is to rural councils facing up to the realities of Brexit: they can achieve much by rethinking their attitude to rural development in the planning system.

For many who have not yet exploited tourism opportunities, myself included, we should recognise the changing dynamics of an increasing urban population and explore the possibilities to complement our traditional core business of food production.

It is at times like this that my organisation comes into its own, offering rural landowners and businesspeople access to a range of advisers and the shared ideas and experiences of fellow members.

So as members of the CLA meet and greet the public across our country, shows and events throughout the summer, I hope we can all reflect on this crucial interaction between farm, farmer and the wider public.

Visitors to the countryside are not only our biggest advocates in the policy battles ahead. They may yet prove some of our best customers.

Tim Breitmeyer is president of the CLA.