27 November 2020

Brexit is an opportunity to level up the rural economy

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Even the most diehard eurosceptic accepts that leaving the EU is a risk. But a willingness to adapt to change is perhaps one of the most enduring qualities we have in this country.

In the farming sector, it was difficult to see how meaningful change to the Common Agricultural Policy could ever be achieved. We, at the Country Land and Business Association, argued for decades that the financial support farmers receive should be based on the environmental good they deliver, not just the amount of land they own. It was an idea that was virtually impossible to execute from inside the EU. Now, as we prepare to leave, this is about to be implemented. 

Transitioning from the old system to the new is fraught with danger, and it is vital that Government provides clear guidance and comprehensive support to farmers throughout that transition. Our analysis shows that the average farm will lose up to 50% of the support they have previously received by the time the new ‘public goods’ scheme is fully available in 2024. This risks putting many farms out of business.

It shows with great clarity the trade offs of leaving the EU. Yes, we will have more power to do things our own way – many of which can be done better – but unless we use that power wisely opportunities will be squandered. Brexit has exposed the need for reform so the country works for everyone, and to its credit, the Government realised this and committed to ‘levelling up’ during the election campaign. This promise, however, has largely been forgotten in the fog of Covid-19. Government needs to follow through – and it should do so with the rural economy at its heart.

The economy in the countryside is 16% less productive than the national average. This gap is equivalent to a loss of £43 billion from GDP. It is a fact that is being almost entirely ignored in Whitehall – a problem at any time, but especially when the economy is facing such dire uncertainty. 

Of course, those of us living and working in the countryside must play our part too. This week is Rural Powerhouse Week: a week-long programme of digital events that brings together senior Ministers, government officials, rural economics experts, land managers and entrepreneurs to identify how we can create good new jobs in the countryside, supporting businesses and communities alike. Indeed, as we all seek to ‘build back better’, the particular focus is how we can grow the economy, mitigate climate change and reverse biodiversity decline at the same time.

It is possible. Only 67% of rural areas have access to a good 4G connection, frustrating entrepreneurs and small businesses reliant on connectivity to grow. Rolling out 4G is worth an estimated £75 billion to the UK economy over 10 years. It’s a stubborn problem but it can be fixed. 

Equally, up and down the country we have rural business owners keen to convert disused buildings into office spaces to support modern start-ups. But all too often they are prevented from doing so by a planning system that is outdated and underfunded, stacking the odds against those wishing to invest in their communities. 

One planning application for the redevelopment of a site in a market town required £1million in upfront costs for supporting evidence, and was ultimately refused. A planning application for a plant that converts biomass into energy incurred £300,000 in upfront costs and was also refused – to the detriment of the Government’s own “green” agenda.

We held high hopes for Government’s planning white paper published earlier this year, which was marketed as a new beginning for the planning system in England. But it seemed the Government was more interested in treating the countryside as a museum, limiting any development at all, rather than as a modern economy with potential for growth and jobs.

A simpler tax system would help businesses wishing to diversify, to invest in skills to support job creation in local areas. The creation of meaningful environmental markets would allow landowners to build businesses that mitigate climate change and encourage biodiversity recovery.

There is no time to lose. The Government needs to reshape the agenda in 2021 to unleash the potential of the rural economy. But to do that it can’t be business as usual. The revolution that is needed in the countryside will not come from one government department, but several – who must learn to work better with one another.

The post-EU fresh start is nearly upon us. And if Government is serious about making the UK a country that works for everyone – including those in the countryside – then it needs to prove it, quickly.

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Mark Bridgeman is President of the Country Land and Business Association.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.