The CLA View

CLA East Director Cath Crowther looks at the latest on the Conservative leadership race
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With the Conservative leadership race in full-swing, both candidates have been setting out some of their rural priorities. Liz Truss has spoken of how she plans to ‘unleash’ British farming and help the industry become more competitive, whilst Rishi Sunak says farming is already a great British industry and he will ensure it has every opportunity to flourish in the years ahead. One of the final hustings events in the contest takes place in East Anglia later this month and it will be a good opportunity to see rural issues at the fore during the debate.

The CLA exists to champion, protect and enhance the rural economy and we are working hard to ensure both candidates are fully aware of the challenges facing rural businesses. Whoever is successful in becoming Prime Minister there is plenty to be filling their in-tray.

In April, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Rural Powerhouse published a new report on how to level up the rural economy. It follows one of the most comprehensive inquiries ever to be conducted by a parliamentary body into the health of the rural economy.

The APPG took evidence from over 50 industry bodies, charities, campaign groups, companies, academics, and business leaders. The report concluded that no government in recent memory has had a programme to unlock the economic and social potential of the countryside.

This has resulted in the fact that the rural economy is 18% less productive than the national average. A gap that, if reduced, could add £43bn to the UK economy.

Findings from the report highlighted a broken planning system which has failed those who live and work in rural areas. Defra, the government department that leads on rural affairs, also lacks the policy levers necessary to make a significant change to the rural economy.

A lack of skills provision is causing rapid ‘brain drain’ in rural areas, and urgent action is required to address labour shortages and supermarkets’ price-setting powers. In addition to this, the government is also backing away from commitments to provide everyone with full-fibre and 4G, plus the current tax system is disincentivising business investment and diversification.

A CLA poll earlier this year of the UK’s five most rural counties highlighted changing political voting patterns in rural areas. In the previous general election, 46% of correspondents voted Conservative. Voter intention is now 36% Labour and 38% Conservative, representing a 7.5% swing.

The poll also found that 66% of people did not believe that the government was doing enough to create prosperity in rural communities. 80% said that a lack of affordable housing was driving young people out of the countryside, with almost half (42%) agreeing that their community was worse off economically, compared to five years ago.

With no concrete plan to support rural communities, the APPG report is intended to serve as an economic blueprint for the countryside.

Recognising the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s finances and the ongoing cost of living crisis, most of the recommendations are low-cost, requiring only a change in policy – and, in many cases, a change in how the government thinks about the countryside.

Rural Britain is not a museum. It is an important part of the national economy that deserves the chance to succeed.

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If you are a member of the Conservative Party then you are eligible to attend a husting. Tickets are available via the party’s website and there is an option to attend the hustings virtually if you are unable to travel there.

If you are attending a husting or know somebody who is, please find below a range of questions that could be put to the candidates to learn more about who is best placed to lead the country and serve the interests of the rural economy.

Suggested questions

  • Farming, though hugely important, only represents 4% to the rural economy. What plans does either candidate have to support rural businesses and allow rural communities to flourish?
  • Will the winning candidate be continuing with the levelling up agenda and how will they make sure that rural communities are not left behind?
  • The rural economy is 18% less productive than the national average; closing this gap is worth more than £40 billion in England alone. What policy interventions are planned to close this gap?
  • How will you ensure that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund brings a tangible benefit to rural businesses?
  • Many rural businesses struggle to recruit staff and young people struggle to get to their place of work or training due to a lack of transport options in rural areas. Is there more Government can be doing to promote and champion schemes like Wheels to Work?
  • Government imposes no statutory duty for local authorities to provide school transport for post-16 students, costing rural families hundreds of pounds each year to get our future workforce into education or skills training. What assessment has Government done to address this disparity and is it a sensible policy given the challenges we are seeing with skills gaps?
  • Carbon trading, biodiversity net gain and environmental programmes have stimulated an increase in demand pressure on land. Farmers and landowners want to play their part but are often outbid by wealthy investors wishing to greenwash their lifestyle. What measures is Government putting in place to ensure we strike a balance between viable food production and environmental protection?
  • Do you agree with the recent APPG report on levelling-up the rural economy makes a recommendation to create Rural Productivity Units to have cross-departmental oversight on policy-making to ensure government investment opportunities benefit rural areas as well as urban areas?