Upgrading must do more to embrace the potential of agriculture and the rural economy – Anne McIntosh

To what extent has agriculture been overlooked by the Leveling Up white paper? Former Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh pops the question.

For sharecroppers, common land and pastoralist rights are particularly vexing and seem to fall into the ‘too difficult to manage’ box of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

In the opinion of the Tenant Farmers Association, it is vitally important that tenant farmers have equal access to all new financial assistance programs developed by Defra, including those introduced under the management program land environment.

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Likewise, we want to prevent agricultural tenants from losing access to the land because their owners wish to take it back either to join government-funded programs or to participate in private biodiversity net gain programs, carbon sequestration or other ecosystem services.

Baorness McIntosh of Pickering is a Conservative peer and former MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey.

We need to hear how Defra plans to bring together its various plans developed in silos into a coherent whole.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU) is calling for a clear vision for UK farming to overcome the labour, trade and funding challenges facing the industry.

As Environment Secretary George Eustice announced more funding for farmers, including plans for a financial support program for pig, sheep and poultry farmers, the NFU highlighted the consequences of the shortage of butchers, which left the farms overflowing with piglets and this led to a massive slaughter.

The current backlog of pigs on farms is estimated at at least 200,000 and at least 35,000 animals have been destroyed. This sad situation is believed to be due to a shortage of slaughterhouse workers due to labor supply caused by both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Should the Leveling Up white paper pay more attention to rural issues?

Wage rises for fruit and vegetable growers are likely to risk food inflation and bankrupt UK growers, according to the NFU which is urging Defra to address the issue.

The NFU wants the government to invest in UK agriculture to sell more local food in the UK and help farmers export it; to ensure farmers can get a fair deal with supermarkets, reform immigration policy to allow more seasonal farm workers, and reform farm subsidies to encourage food production while meeting environmental goals.

In the 332 pages of the government’s recent White Paper on leveling up, there are only 39 references to rural issues, suggesting a huge missed opportunity from a rural perspective.

The commitment to full fiber and 4G connectivity is there but pushed back from 2025 to 2030. Nearly half a million homes and about 125,000 businesses in rural areas have poor or slow broadband.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) urges the government to keep this priority on the agenda, as no modern business can function without the internet.

People in Yorkshire just want a good job and an affordable home, but both can be hard to come by in rural areas. They were counting on the government’s race to the top program to recognize the potential of the rural economy. But as far as we can tell, those developing the concept of “upgrading” have never even tried it.

The rural economy is 18% less productive than the national average. Closing this gap could add up to £43bn to the national economy. Too often the government treats the countryside like a museum, erring on the side of lack of development and low investment.

Aside from government, CLA encourages local business partnerships to help find solutions to the pressing realities experienced in rural areas.

In Yorkshire, the CLA is working with agricultural and rural organizations as part of the Grow Yorkshire initiative and there is an urgent need for the government to make the necessary changes to agricultural tenancy agreements to allow tenants to benefit from environmental schemes for the good public as we leave basic farm payments and stewardship programs.

The issue of slaughterhouse workers and wider employment issues also need to be addressed, as well as unfair competition. In the interests of self-sufficiency and food security, we must have a safe, sustainable and affordable supply of home-grown food. That remains the goal.

Baorness McIntosh of Pickering is a Conservative peer and former MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey.

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