In July, Middlemarch attended the CLA’s South West Rural and Farming Network Conference in Taunton, Somerset. The conference provided an opportunity for farmers and others with an interest in rural affairs to listen to speakers reflect on the post Brexit environment, what the South Wests’ devolution deals mean for farming, and how the protection of the natural environment is going to change now that there has been a reduction in the amount of funding coming from Westminster.
The conference was predictably dominated by the issue of Brexit and how this will affect the farming and rural community, and sought to answer questions. These questions covered issues such as: should farmers only engage with DEFRA or with other government departments; how can the South West’s devolution deals be made to best work for farmers and the rural community; how should the CLA look to influence future policy to support the rural community; and how can the opportunity of Brexit work best for farming?
Speakers emphasised the value of farming to the whole economy and not just the rural sector. The knock-on effect that farming has for other industries, such as agricultural supply chains, vets, supermarkets and others was raised. So too was the £108 billion that the agri-food sector contributes to the economy, as well as the 3.9 million jobs it provides. Farmers and the food sector also have a wider impact, being responsible for the UK meeting some of its carbon reduction targets. 61 per cent of UK solar power is based on farm sites, and since 1990 farmers have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent. The environmental economy is as big as the manufacturing industry, yet there are some notable differences in the level of government support these sectors receive.
As well as discussing the opportunities offered by Brexit, the conference also covered the huge problems facing the farming sector. Farm gate prices have fallen steadily over the last 30 months, and farm productivity fell by 29 per cent in 2015, whilst farm borrowing doubled in the last ten years. The UK’s food security has also fallen from 79 per cent in 1980, and is predicted to fall again to just 47 per cent in 2050.
Another issue raised by speakers was that farming is not considered to be a promising career by many young people, and farm wages have collectively fallen by £1.5 billion since 1990. Farming is also struggling due to the lack of broadband access for farmers, where the UK lags behind other developed economies in broadband connectivity.
The value of the natural economy was also analysed, with a special focus on the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and the Jurassic Coast in Devon and Dorset. Both of these areas have a huge ability to pull in tourists and local residents who spend money in the local economy. Yet the wider natural economy is not being properly managed, and so the vast economic potential of the UK’s natural assets is not being realised. The Dorset AONB brings in £65 million per year for the local economy and supports 1200 jobs. The Jurassic coast brings in £111 million and supports 2000 jobs, yet if these resources are not carefully managed then the revenue that these natural assets add to the economy will be lost.
Concern was raised about the West of England devolution deal, which will encompass Bristol City Council, Bath and North East Somerset Council, and South Gloucestershire Council. The fourth potential partner in the deal, North Somerset, has opted out. There is uncertainty surrounding what happens to rural funding when it is devolved to the local level, for example – how would the funding work with respect to a county council, mayoralty, or a unitary authority when the area in question crosses the new boundaries of the devolved authority?
The issue of Brexit provides a huge opportunity for farmers but has also created uncertainty within the industry. Until the UK formally leaves the EU, the country is still bound by the various existing treaties, farmers still receive subsidies from the EU and the UK is still represented on the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council. The new government must make sure that the policies it brings in deliver for UK farming and the rural economy, and it must develop new programmes to meet the needs of UK farming and focus on how the industry can improve. The vote to leave has also meant that the 25-year Environment Plan and the 25-year Food and Farming Plan will both be changed to meet the new realities of a UK government wholly in control of farming and rural policy.