Campaigning for the Countryside

11 November 2019

CLA East Regional Director Cath Crowther

Just days after I took up my new role as regional director for the CLA (Country Land and Business Association) news of a general election was confirmed for December. Part of the attraction of joining the CLA is because I passionately believe in speaking up for rural businesses and there has never been a more important time to fight the corner for those who live and work in the countryside.

The general election may finally rid us of the political impasse of the last few years. But hope of resolving the current state of play needs to be tempered. The previous December general election, held in 1923, resulted in a hung parliament, and additional election 10 months later.

There is so much more than Brexit to life, and the CLA will be aiming to ensure the rural economy is not forgotten during the period of doorstep-trampling and frenetic sloganeering. In the coming weeks we will be laying out our priority policy areas for any future government through our Rural Powerhouse campaign. With the right policy platform, we believe the rural economy has tremendous potential for economic growth, job creation and wider prosperity.

We hope that candidates of all persuasions will be explicit in their commitment to our countryside, rural communities, farmers and businesses. They can do this by laying out robust and ambitious plans to unlock the potential of the rural economy, particularly in recognising the unique role it plays in delivering growth and jobs, while answering society’s demands for food production and action on the environment.

One of the most pressing issues remains poor digital connectivity as it impacts on every rural business. In the last year the CLA has made substantial progress in its relations within the industry and with operators, underlined by a recent government pledge to deliver high-quality 4G mobile coverage to 95 percent of the UK by 2025. Any incoming government should honour or improve on this commitment.

The rural economy also requires places for people to live and work, so a more positive approach to appropriate development is called for too. Many planning authorities are writing off villages as unsustainable based on outdated criteria like libraries and telephone boxes rather than considering broadband and social capital.

Rural tourism is crucial to the UK economy and realising its additional untapped potential will benefit rural communities immensely. But it needs support in terms of rural development funding and clear guidance on how businesses will be able to source labour post-Brexit.

Diversification can help to make rural enterprises more resilient and sustainable in a changing world. A dynamic government would put in place policies and funding support that would unlock the full potential of the rural economy.

The proposed Agriculture Bill will result in a major restructuring of the food and farming sector, inclusive of the agri-food supply chain which is crucial to trade. However, the potential impact of a general election on the Bill, and any potential changes to it, is unknown.

The transition period away from direct support to farmers into payments will require time to soften the impacts of a new fiscal framework and needs careful design and management to ensure the value of farming and the countryside is maintained and enhanced.

Profitable farming can go hand in hand with delivering public goods such as enhancing the environment and sequestering carbon but only through long-term business planning that must be backed by the certainty of multi-annual investment by any future government, which should include direct investment in skills and productivity.  The design and administration of ELMs (Environmental Land Management scheme) must be a priority and we need individuals with the knowledge and experience to manage the scheme. 

The CLA has a long track record of engaging and leading the debate and actions to tackle climate change, producing the first UK-based carbon accounting tool for land managers (CALM) in 2005. A future government must recognise the importance of landowners in addressing climate change, and also commit to invest in research and development to address this issue.

Aside from these ‘bread and butter’ issues, the CLA recognises the importance of Brexit related matters affecting the countryside and wants to ensure that agriculture and rural communities are not written off as collateral damage in any future government’s negotiations with the EU, or future trade deals outside of it.

It is for an incoming government to ensure there is a policy framework which supports profitable farming, food production and the environment, alongside a tariff regime which would prevent undercutting the UK market with products of lower environmental or animal welfare standards.

The CLA will continue to champion the rural economy in this region and beyond, providing a powerful lobbying voice in Westminster to ensure that the rural voice is heard on a wide range of issues including taxation, planning, and rural crime to name but a few. If the next government can work constructively with the CLA and the wider rural community, it would ensure that the rural economy can play an even bigger role, on par with urban businesses, in the UK’s future success.

This election is an opportunity for all political parties to regain the trust of the countryside.  We hope they take their chance.