Review of Rural Powerhouse Week 2020

A week-long programme of live webinars, videos, blogs, podcasts and workshops covering a future without BPS, international trade, climate change and planning
Rural Powerhouse Week 2020

A future without BPS

The week started with a focus on one of the biggest changes to come to English agriculture in decades with the introduction of the government’s new agriculture policy.

During an interview with CLA President Mark Bridgeman, Secretary of State for Defra George Eustice MP spoke about his hopes for the future of agriculture. He said he wanted to ensure that there was a system for a vibrant, profitable farming industry that gets a fair share of value in the supply chain for the food it produces, investment in new technology to become more profitable and where opportunities are created for new entrants.

He also acknowledged the need to support farmers by investing in technology and structural change. He said his wish is to see a future where farmers received a fairer share of the supply chain. “You need to target the right thing, to get the right outcome. The right thing to target is farm profitability.” The minister emphasised that the future would not be led by policy driven from the top, and there would be support for farmers to take the decisions best suited for their own business.

The second session saw a panel of experts discuss their thoughts on the future of farming without the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). CLA Chief Land Use Policy Adviser Susan Twining set out what the future of policy would look like in England. Manon Williams, a CLA Cymru member for Agri Advisor, talked about policy development in Wales, which is at an earlier stage than England. Manon urged Welsh Government not to make the same mistakes from previous policy changes, with little guidance in advance to enable businesses to prepare.

Ed Hutley of Strutt and Parker conducted a quick straw poll of attendees, 53% of whom said they did not think their business would be profitable without BPS. “The most expensive words in the next few years will be ‘we’ve always done it that way’, people need to be fully aware of the changes coming,” he said. CLA member Emma Watson, of Gasson Associates, used her own farm as an example of how environmental options could be used to replace unprofitable arable crops. Ian Gould from Oakbank then outlined how to make a success from current environmental schemes.

Deal or no deal

This is a time of great opportunity for Britain’s producers, especially at the premium end of the market, the trade minister told CLA members. Greg Hands, Minister of State for Trade Policy at the Department for International Trade, was the keynote speaker on the trade day of the event.

In conversation with CLA President Mark Bridgeman, he identified exporting to America as having particular potential for products such as cheese and lamb, with growing demand for the latter not covered by domestic production. The minister spoke of the UK cornering the premium end of the market but also said we could be competitive in bulk products too, and not just to Europe but across the world.

“The EU will remain an incredibly important export market… but there’s huge opportunities in the wider world, when you look at world demographics, when you look at a growing middle class particularly in Asia, but also South America and eventually in Africa.”

Greg Hands, Minister of State for Trade Policy at the Department for International Trade

Mr Hands said there is a strong appetite for the “best of British”, which can grow further as we enter a new era. During a question and answer session, a diverse range of issues were raised including exporting commodities, the impact devolution may have on trade negotiations, labelling and how to make trade agreements more environmentally friendly.

Other content available during the day included a video focusing on technical support from experts at the Department for International Trade, covering specific details of help available, from grants to best practice guidance. International trade adviser Simon Bedford encouraged members to consider global markets due to the excitement of “selling in Singapore rather than Solihull, and getting phones calls and emails from Cape Town rather than Croydon”. There was also a podcast which provided the latest political insight into Brexit negotiations, followed by a lively debate around risks and opportunities between former Institute of Economic Affairs Director Julian Jessop and the CLA’s Senior Business and Economics Adviser Charles Trotman.

The road to net zero

The third day of the event focused on climate change and the UK’s road to net zero. The first session provided plenty of thought-provoking discussion as CLA Deputy President Mark Tufnell interviewed Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford.

Professor Helm stressed the importance of agriculture in getting the UK to reach its net zero target by 2050. “Transport is bigger than the power sector (in terms of carbon emissions) but agriculture, relative to its economic significance as a measure in a conventional way of GDP, is by far the biggest polluter in the UK,” he said. “Those emissions will have to come down or we will not achieve net zero, it is as simple as that.”

Professor Helm discussed the importance of businesses measuring their carbon footprint and for them to understand their carbon baseline – how much they are emitting and how much they are sequestering. He added that land managers should think about “how you are going to change your behaviour and how are consumers going to change their behaviour”. He also highlighted the need to work out the total capacity to absorb carbon, including soils, and to look at all the options available. “Soils are the natural capital of any farmer,” he said.

The second live session of the day focused on the work taking place at Holkham in north Norfolk and what farmers and landowners can do to be part of the solution in tackling climate change. The webinar panel included the Earl of Leicester and the wider team at Holkham along with Hugh Taylor, the CEO of Roadnight Taylor – a power and energy consultancy. The session was chaired by CLA Norfolk Vice-Chairman, Gavin Lane.

There are still a number of climate change sceptics out there, but I think it was put very succinctly by Sir David Attenborough when he said that there is simply too much of a risk to ignore it.

The Earl of Leicester, Owner of Holkham

The Earl of Leicester said: “We have been embarking on a journey of regenerative agriculture over the last seven or eight years and it has seen yields increase and we have seen soil resilience and soil health improve.” James Beamish, Holkham Farming Company General Manager added: “We do seem to be getting a lot more major weather events and we’re trying to put resilience into the farming system to cope with these ever-changing weather patterns. “We’ve put a lot of investment into our soils with organic materials and livestock is integrated within our arable rotations.”

The final day explored the planning systems in both England and Wales. The morning session was a lively discussion on the merits and pitfalls of the proposed planning reforms.

Branwen Evans, Deputy Director for Planning Policy and Reform at the Ministry of Housing, Local Communities and Local Government summed up some of the key objectives as:

  • Creating greater certainty at the start of the process,
  • Making it easier to access the planning system via digital tools,
  • Improving outcomes for both developers and communities, but recognising also that heritage assets and community assets are protected.

Speaking about growth areas, growth, renewal and protection, Branwen gave reassurance that rural places won’t be frozen in time, but that each planned development would be assessed on a case by case basis.

Fenella Collins, the CLA’s Head of Planning, noted that the system is plan-led in that decisions on planning applications are made with reference to local plan policies, many of which are outdated. She argued that this is a key reason why the planning system falls down, and that this is having a detrimental effect on rural economic development. She reiterated the CLA’s support for the aims and objectives in the government’s white paper regarding the simplification and standardisation of proposals, stronger democracy, giving a higher priority to design and making the system operate more efficiently.

The final event saw a panel of experts share practical tips for achieving successful planning outcomes. Joe Evans, of Whitbourne Estate in Herefordshire, said: “Find a highly rated planning consultant that can guide you through the process. Ensure that your plan aligns with the national plan, local plan and neighbourhood plans – it is much easier to make things happen if local planners can see your proposals are in line with theirs.”

Roger Tempest, custodian at Broughton Hall, said that getting the right team together is crucial, and that it is important to get your case properly prepared before approaching planning authorities. James Whilding, Managing Director at Acorus and Judith Norris, Director at Rural Planning Practice provided advice on site-specific considerations and also dealing with site deficiencies such as contaminated land, access and visibility. They also said that engagement with all stakeholders early on is vital and Judith recommends using a local authority’s preplanning service.