The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business’s inquiry into rural productivity has reached its halfway point. Three evidence sessions have taken place on connectivity, planning and farming, and they have all produced pragmatic, helpful discussions with several practical solutions to increase productivity in rural areas.
The evidence session on farming took place this week with witnesses including CLA President Mark Bridgeman, TFA Chief Executive George Dunn and NFU’s Business Strategy Senior Adviser Andrew Francis. Chaired by inquiry co-chair Julian Sturdy MP, the panel of MPs and peers examined a range of topics, including the potential for agricultural productivity growth, the level of incentives offered to farmers and land managers for delivering environmental outcomes, innovation in the food supply chains and minimising uncertainty in the sector.
There was consensus among witnesses that there was a tremendous opportunity for growth within agriculture, despite pronounced differences already in certain sub-sectors e.g. the pork sector versus livestock. Mark Bridgeman highlighted the opportunity for increased collaboration and co-operation within supply chains and across groups of farmers, and Andrew Francis spoke of the potential of data in measuring productivity but said this was currently hampered by other issues such as poor connectivity.
The panel also looked at the level of incentives available to farmers and land managers to drive production. George Dunn spoke of the missed opportunity that leaving the EU prompted in terms of a new approach and aspiration for agriculture, with a need for a systematic approach instead of the patchwork quilt of intervention that has become the norm. Panelist Lord Carrington remarked that there is not enough about schemes for farmers to commit to investments and that, while commodity prices remained high, there was no pressure for farmers to adjust.
The lack of information available from Defra, as well as the sheer number of initiatives (18), were cited as barriers in unlocking future productivity growth.
Mark Bridgeman argued for a roadmap to better help farmers and land managers look to the future and minimise uncertainty.
How innovation can be encouraged in food supply chains was another area of focus for the panel. George Dunn highlighted the issue of labour shortages in supply chains and called for wider discussions with the government about how to reinvigorate the supply chain instead of leaving it to the market, with Andrew Francis describing farmers as price takers, not price makers. He also called for increased collaboration among farmers to get better prices and improve productivity. Mark Bridgeman cited the National Food Strategy and how we can work with what we have, including better promoting the strong British brand and competitive advantage we have there.
The evidence session on farming followed one on the planning system in rural areas, which looked at the planning white paper, the capabilities and resources of planning departments, sustainable communities and affordable housing, and whether the problem stems from the planning regulations or the application of those regulations.
The next evidence session will take place in October, which will look at skills and how we can build a rural workforce. The final two sessions will look at tax and government processes before the APPG produces a report on rural productivity in early 2022.