CLA President reviews the year - and looks at opportunities and challenges ahead

CLA President, Mark Bridgeman reported on a unique year, to a CLA Cymru AGM - and explains how the CLA will focus on key issues for members in the twelve months ahead

Landowners face an immediate future of widespread and intense change, CLA President, Mark Bridgeman explained to CLA Cymru members in his AGM review. Speaking to members from South East Wales, his views are relevant to the whole Welsh membership. Fundamental change in the farming support schemes in England and Wales, the implication of new international trade agreements, net-zero target driven measures in energy management, change in the planning regime and changes in taxation – notably in Wales where more taxes are being devolved: these all confront us. In dealing with government, we’ve never been so busy: membership of the CLA has never been as important as it is today.

The pandemic and accompanying restrictions had a severe effect on businesses – felt indeed by the CLA itself. Maintaining contact with members in the early days of the crisis had been a priority. Face-to-face meetings to recruit members was not possible. Mark explained that offering advice on Emergency Resilience Fund support and the detail of the restrictions had become a strong reason to commence a very successful engagement programme which has since delivered the CLA a prestigious industry award. Yet, in the teeth of lockdown, thanks to online communication Mark (and others) had “met” more ministers, MPs, Select Committees and government officials than ever before.

Massive change in agriculture was on-the-cards well before Covid 19. In Wales members won’t really feel the full impact until 2025, but English landowners are already experiencing cuts in BPS. Moving to the new sustainable farming schemes, to receive public funding support, farmers will have to change how they work, and work harder in new areas, We’ve been preparing ourselves for it since 2016. Despite all the debate, the real impact is yet to come.

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We’re going to hear a lot about net zero in the next few weeks, Mark continued. This presents us with opportunity and threats. Land managers need to think very carefully about their carbon footprint, how to measure carbon emissions and equally how to measure carbon sequestration capacity. Farmers must be alert to the food retailers’ growing commitment only to buy from suppliers which are – or will reach – net zero. “We must make sure we’ve got our house in order before we sell-off our carbon.”

The opportunities in planting more trees and managing peatland are well known. “Less well understood is to what degree we can lift the carbon content of our soils by improving farming techniques,” Mark said. Some voluntary carbon markets exist, but the City has been challenged to become a world leader in carbon trading. The CLA is feeding in to this process as a supplier of opportunities.

One of the challenges brought by the net zero commitments is the impact on housing stock. Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) now need to meet an even more demanding standard “C”. This is nigh-on impossible for rural, traditional homes. The standards were rooted in the commitment to tackle energy poverty. We have been lobbying hard for the government to change the standards from a measure of the cost of heating to a measure of carbon management. Mark reported he is hopeful that this will change.

The post-Brexit trade deals are critical to our post-Covid recovery. Mark expressed a view that opinion on this subject has been crude: “If you’re pro free-trade, you’re anti UK farming – if you’re pro UK farming you’re anti free-trade. The reality is more nuanced.”

There’s two sides to this: Government must get behind UK farmers to help promote UK exports. Governments of some relatively small countries, such as New Zealand, make great efforts to promote their economy internationally. On the imports side the UK Government talks about “upholding standards” in produce coming to the UK. But, this is highly complex: it’s about environmental factors, transport, processing as well as livestock welfare. Mark explained that he had worked in Australia for a period and noted that all these factors are incomparably different there. This is an important area in which we – and others – will be keeping close watch, and will continue to lobby government.

Mark concluded by commenting on the nature of the new Welsh Government since the Senedd election this spring. The formation of the new Climate Change department headed by Julie James MS brings together responsibility for many areas critical for landowners: natural resource management and the environment, the National Parks, planning, energy and infrastructure. Many big bold statements are being made in both Cardiff and Westminster. But the devil’s in the detail and we will be scrutinising and lobbying on members’ behalf.