Rural communities running out of patience with government

The latest column from CLA East Director Cath Crowther
Cath Crowther - new enews.jpg
Cath Crowther

It was a pleasure to have so many farmers and land managers from our region join us at our Rural Business Conference in London recently. The conference had the theme “Overcoming the barriers to business success” and brought together hundreds of members to hear first-hand from senior government officials, as well as landowners and rural business owners who are finding new ways to grow their enterprises in difficult times.

With new Defra Secretary and Suffolk MP Dr Thérèse Coffey in the audience, our President Mark Tufnell made it clear in his opening speech that rural communities are running out of patience with the government and confidence in the success of its Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme is about to disappear.

Mark said that the delays to the rollout of the ELM scheme are unacceptable and compared the lack of clarity on payment rates to “buying something from the shop without knowing the price”. He said that confidence in the scheme’s success is on the brink of “disappearing forever” across the farming industry.

The CLA has always had a constructive relationship with the government, calling them to account when needed, communicating robustly and negotiating hard, but we have done so in a way that never loses sight of the end goal: that being paid for environmental delivery is the right thing. That improving our soils and boosting nature is the right thing to do.

But it is getting very difficult to sell this proposition to farmers at large when the government in England has failed to promote its own message effectively. It is unacceptable that payment rates for the new options in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Local Nature Recovery have not yet been published, particularly for those that relate to 2023, which is just weeks away.

Two years into the transition, and after promises of early introduction of the SFI to help manage the move away from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), our industry still has no clarity on what will be paid beyond what was made available for 2022, or the payment rates themselves.

In his speech, Mark also criticised the government’s track record in supporting rural businesses across the country, pointing towards a planning regime that seems “designed to hold the rural economy back,” a lack of affordable housing driving away young people, and infrastructure and connectivity preventing many from even “operating in the 21st century”. Mark called on the government to match the ambitions of rural business owners across the country, adding that 12 years since the Conservatives came to power, he cannot see how the policy landscape has improved.

Dr Coffey confirmed to delegates that the review into ELM has concluded and said that its purpose was to “secure the biggest bang for our buck in the way we spend public money and that it is easy and attractive for farmers to get involved. She said: “We want to give you the certainty you need to plan for future investment cycles.”

Yet, for now at least, the cloud of uncertainty continues to loom large. There are so many rural businesses in our region that stand ready to invest, support jobs and help communities thrive. But they are sailing against the wind. That must change.