The rural economy has the potential to support thriving communities and add £43bn to the national GDP if systemic barriers around investment, planning, connectivity, business support and skills are removed. At the 2022 CLA Rural Business Conference, members shared stories about how they overcame some of these barriers to achieve business success and discussed how the government, local authorities and other organisations can work to provide solutions to these problems. Delegates at the Kia Oval also heard from government officials and industry stakeholders, who shared their vision for a flourishing rural economy.
Opening the sixth annual conference on 1 December, CLA President Mark Tufnell warned the government that rural communities are running out of patience. He said delays to the rollout of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme are unacceptable, and that confidence is on the brink of “disappearing forever” across the farming industry. “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,” he told delegates.
“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. “Two years into the transition, and after promises of early introduction of the Sustainable Farming Incentive to help manage the move away from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), members still have no clarity on what will be paid beyond what was made available for 2022, or the payment rates themselves.
“You don’t buy something from the shop without knowing the price. You don’t invest in a new business without knowing the outlay. And you don’t, as a farmer, enter into new environmental schemes without knowing whether it will be worth it for your business.”
Defra Secretary Dr Thérèse Coffey confirmed that the ELM review had concluded and that the government was moving ahead with the transition on the same timescale and with three schemes. She also said Defra would announce “early in the new year” what it will offer to pay in the next phase of the schemes. “All the funding that we are taking out of reductions in BPS will continue to be made available to farmers through a combination of one-off grants and ongoing schemes,” she said. “As we make those planned, steady reductions to BPS payments, we will pay you to take action through our three ELM schemes.”
The first session also heard from Professor Sally Shortall, Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy at Newcastle University, who provided reflections on the rural economy’s future direction. Drawing on her work with the university’s Centre for Rural Economy, Sally explained that there are many different types of ‘rural economy’ and listed rural opportunities, including increased interest in the environment and a growing appreciation of rural public goods. However, challenges include a lack of skills, resources and inaccessible places. “It’s becoming very clear that there are different types of rural areas, each with their own challenges,” she said. She called for “tangible solutions and strong policies”, and said “we need to understand how community groups can address the needs of rural areas”.
A rural planning system
The conference, backed by headline partner Knight Frank and supporting partners Environment Bank and Sykes Holiday Cottages, heard how members have navigated planning system challenges and their thoughts on how it can be improved.
William Mathias of CGJ Mathias & Son Nurseries in Surrey spoke about his difficulties in getting approval for a dwelling on a 40-acre site being brought into nursery stock production in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). His application was rejected by local councillors, who did not want to see any new development in the AONB green belt. He told delegates that the challenges he faced were “political and not policy”. “Councillors should have more accountability, and training is needed for them on matters of rural affairs. For us, it was a case of politics getting in the way, not policy. Local politics can be a game changer, as we have experienced.”
Keeley Evans of Crumplebury in Herefordshire shared the challenges her rural business faced transforming old outbuildings into an environmentally sustainable events venue and restaurant. She said: “We took bold steps to create something beautiful, and it should not have been as hard as it was.” Speaking about how to make the planning system work for rural businesses, she added: “We need government support at every level.”
Anthony Downs at Gascoyne Estates spoke about the estate’s role in shaping the debate around placemaking in Hertfordshire by working with the community and on other projects. Working with neighbours, the estate established development principles and building codes that apply to its development plans. “We are not just creating communities but reaffirming existing communities,” he said. “Our goals align with that of local communities. “Landowners can be an engine for change. We can all speak about the kind of good we do on a daily basis.”
Rural communities minister
In his session, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called on the government to appoint a cross-departmental minister for rural communities. He said: “We need to start with a change to the way that government thinks about rural communities. Siloing off ‘rural affairs’ in Defra isn’t working. It leads to the neglect we see for rural communities across the government.
“I’m calling on the prime minister to appoint a cross-departmental minister for rural communities to make sure that rural voices are heard across Whitehall when decisions are made so that rural communities aren’t forgotten or ignored by any part of government ever again.”
The first afternoon session looked at how better infrastructure can grow the rural economy. Alistair Beales of Gayton Estate discussed how collaboration between farmers resulted in the creation of a successful water irrigation business that delivers multiple benefits for the farmers involved and the community. “We came together with farming neighbours, we have stayed together and we keep working together to improve our businesses and the rural economy,” he said. “It is a quantum leap in infrastructure, and is only possible through collaboration.”
David Phillips of Michaelston y Fedw Internet Community Broadband Project shared how he helped a deliver a broadband service through community funding, Welsh Government funding and the UK Gigabit Voucher Scheme. The project delivers broadband to the community for £30 a month and funds are available to be invested in projects that benefit the local community.
Chris Mann from Bennamann explained how the company is creating a circular economy through technology that captures and repurposes fugitive methane.
The final session looked at the skills needed for rural communities to succeed. Fiona Sample, Chief Executive Officer of the Oswin Project, outlined the benefits of offering a second chance to people with criminal records through opportunities in rural businesses. It organises ‘green open days’ at open prisons in the North East, which have led to successful placements in local farms.
Louise Simpson, Executive Director of the Institute of Chartered Foresters, spoke about the challenges facing the forestry sector and the exciting opportunities available to help overcome the issues.
James Farrell from Knight Frank, concluded by talking about the five ‘P’s that businesses must focus on to encourage the rural skills of the future: purpose, people, place, planet and prosperity.