I must start by thanking William Sunnucks who agreed to extend his role as county chairman until the delayed county AGM, eventually held virtually at the end of October last year. William brought an enquiring mind and a sharp eye for detail to the role and did not hesitate to ask difficult questions of the CLA and the organisations with which we liaise. I will endeavour to continue his good work!
2020 was always going to be an important year for the rural sector with Brexit and the re-patriation of agricultural and environmental policy. Covid-19 did not result in a delay to a departure from the EU, but did mean that new legislation was delayed and land managers had less time to react to emerging policy.
The Agriculture Act was finally signed into law in November, largely unchanged from the early drafts. The CLA have been working hard to ensure that the vital role of farmers and landowners is not undermined by agricultural, environmental or tax laws.
In Essex we have greater opportunity than many counties to diversify and there are few farms now that do not earn some income outside agriculture. This trend is set to continue. A major growth area is likely to be natural capital and biodiversity net gain. There are many housing and infrastructure projects planned in the county and new planning rules will require these developments to deliver biodiversity net gain. Much of this will be on third party land. We wait to see how landowners will access this demand and how the market will price the provision of this service.
We maintain close links with the County Council who have declared a Climate Emergency and set up a county wide Climate Action Commission. We are grateful to Archie Ruggles-Brise for representing landowners and the CLA on the Land Use special interest group, which feeds into the Commission. The County will be supporting environmental initiatives and has already committed funds to a tree planting programme.
I would encourage all Essex members to keep a close eye on communications from the CLA and to attend events as often as possible, hopefully in person in 2021. Decisions made this year will be vital to the ongoing viability of rural businesses. Covid-19 has had a major impact, particularly on leisure and hospitality businesses as well as landlords. The CLA has been instrumental in lobbying for Government support in these areas and will press for this support to be extended as necessary.
A side effect of Covid-19 has been a move to increased digital content available through the CLA website, including excellent interviews and webinars, culminating in the Rural Powerhouse Week in late November. These remain available to view in your own time and are well worth a look.
The Essex committee will continue to provide feedback to our excellent regional team in Newmarket. We welcome comments and contributions from all members.