All change

The final column from CLA Director Cath Crowther before her maternity leave
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This will be my last column before going on maternity leave. Mark Riches, who is a former CLA Regional Director in the Midlands and has also held the post of Director of Programmes within the organisation, has been appointed to cover my period of maternity leave.

The agricultural sector continues to go through a period of significant change and our members should feel reassured to have Mark leading the team in the east. With Mark’s vast experience within the CLA and his extensive background as a rural surveyor, I can think of no better person to have representing our region.

You would be forgiven for not having followed every aspect of the Levelling-up Bill’s passage through Parliament. But recently, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove proposed an amendment - which was ultimately defeated in the House of Lords - designed to remove the ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules that effectively ban housing developments if they add nutrients such as phosphates or nitrates into the landscape.

The motive was to remove a barrier to building new homes. While many supported the announcement, there was a furore in the press as environmental campaigners accused ministers of turning their back on nature. The debate brings into focus one of the more fundamental problems in public policy-making.

We desperately need more houses, and we desperately need to improve the environment - but the solution to one crisis might worsen the other. Having engaged with MPs and ministers during my time at the CLA, I cannot help but feel that they are often between a rock and a hard place.

The government’s recent attempt however to intervene in nutrient neutrality has undermined any efforts to secure land for mitigation. Landowners are less likely to put land forward if they think the government is simply going to do away with nutrient neutrality.

Putting land forward for mitigation (e.g., create a wetland) can help solve the issue, bring multiple co-benefits for the environment, and provide an income for landowners. However, agreements are complex and long-term (100 years plus), which greatly disincentivises landowners from engaging in mitigation schemes.

It should also be recognised that current modelling for nutrient neutrality mitigation is not proportionate for those seeking small-scale housing developments. These developments, which often seek to provide much needed rural housing to help support sustainable communities, require significant areas of land to deliver an off-set. There are also other types of simple developments being held up.

It is an extremely complex situation.

The same can be said for the development of Environmental Land Management Schemes in England. Almost everyone agrees that an environmentally sustainable agriculture policy is necessary, but the pain in transitioning from EU schemes has caused headaches for farmers and public officials alike – and usually, nobody ends up fully happy.

Whatever the policy, there is always a trade-off. I firmly believe however, that it is CLA members, who are a range of farmers, landowners and rural businesses, who can provide more solutions to today’s problems than any Westminster argument can. It is something we will be making abundantly clear to all political parties as we move towards a general election next year.