Ross Murray: The UK can develop a world-leading agricultural policy

THE UK, the rural economy and much more enters a new chapter.

What does Brexit mean for farming?

I am struck by how the tenure of our EU membership will prove merely a short period in a long history of land stewardship for many CLA members.

For all of us, we have to brace ourselves for a period of change with risks attached.

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It is one that we will approach with stoic optimism. This is a character inherent to landowning businesses and to the CLA in particular. We take the long view.

A period of significant uncertainty is ahead.

It will take time for our governments in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff to work out the process by which the UK is disentangled from the legal and economic framework of the EU.

Even before that process begins in earnest, there will be a period of reorganisation within the UK Government. Our initial hope, even if not expectation, is that the process from hereon will be carefully considered and given sufficient time to be undertaken in a smooth transition.

However there will be events ahead that few of us are able to predict with any certainty. Yes, events...

The CLA has been preparing for this outcome. Any hopes we had during the campaign that when Ministers repeatedly denied our challenge to tell us that they had a Plan B that they were really working on one but not willing to tell us, have been dashed.

It is clear that they really weren’t making contingency plans, especially in the areas that matter most to us. There is no secret team of crack civil servants emerging from the shadows.

Instead the Civil Service is playing catch up in a political maelstrom. My only relief is that we have been planning for this outcome and are able to engage in the discussions setting out clearly what we believe is required in the short, medium and long term.

As I have said directly to Ministers and officials in the past few days, the short term imperative is providing certainty about the immediate future.

We need to know that we will not face a dislocation with regard to the Basic Payment Scheme and Countryside Stewardship contracts in particular.

Ministers must state clearly that, whatever the timeframe that is agreed for the UK’s exit from the EU and the CAP, the contractual terms will be honoured in full and on time.

They should be funded by the UK Treasury if necessary until at least the end of 2020. We will press for this and make clear that without this basic reassurance it will compound the sense of crisis that is being felt across agricultural sectors.

This immediate decision is closely followed by the need for two further critical reassurances.

The first is that the Government will develop a dedicated, fully funded, agricultural and rural policy that will replace the Common Agricultural Policy. There is no reason why the UK cannot develop a world leading agricultural policy that will significantly improve on the CAP in terms of delivery and create better outcomes for our economy, the environment and rural communities.

The second is that the Government will treat agriculture as a genuine priority in the trade negotiations ahead. There is not a strong history of countries successfully negotiating access to the single market for agricultural produce in particular.

The same applies to the negotiations the UK Government must begin to gain access to markets across the globe. There must be no suggestion that the UK Government is not fighting hard for the best deals for our farmers and other rural businesses.

The final consideration is that we are a long way from knowing what the full and wider implications of EU exit will be for the regulatory and fiscal framework that governs our everyday lives. A bonfire of regulation is unlikely, to be frank. Any changes to the regulatory burden will be incremental and developed over time. However there will undoubtedly be opportunities in the medium to long term to change laws, rules and regulations and even taxes, and for the better.

We will approach these systematically and push the Government to take these opportunities wherever they present and also resist the inevitable attempts that will be made to impose new unnecessary burdens.

I do not under-estimate the scale of the uncertainty ahead. However I also believe in the resilience of farming and the wider rural economy; after all, there is nothing more certain than that the population needs feeding.

The CLA is a strong voice for you and we are ready for the task. Together we can meet the challenges, and harness the opportunities, in the changing times ahead.

Ross Murray is president of the Country Land and Business Association.