CLA opinion: Election creates ‘window of opportunity’ on farm policy

Country Land and Business Association�s eastern regional director Ben Underwood.

Country Land and Business Association�s eastern regional director Ben Underwood. - Credit: Archant

It is a New Year and a fresh start for both the CLA in the eastern region and myself, writes the Association’s new Eastern Regional Director Ben Underwood.

I’m looking forward to taking up my position; within a week of being in post I’ll have a great opportunity to meet with members to discuss the future direction of the CLA in the region, and my plans, at LAMMA Show, which is being held at the East of England Showground in Peterborough on January 21 and 22.

While the event is a popular forum for farmers from across East Anglia and beyond to discuss and purchase machinery and equipment, the CLA will be there (Stand 787 in Hall 7) to talk with people about their businesses and the issues that are crucial for them to plan effectively for future success.

Given the forthcoming General Election in May (without doubt the most uncertain one for 70 years) and the likely environmental, economic and regulatory changes that lie ahead, issues such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), planning, flooding, and water security should be top of farmers’ agendas.

While I will be aiming to meet Suffolk and Essex CLA members as soon as I can, LAMMA gives me my first opportunity to discuss what lies ahead in 2015 and the achievements we recorded on behalf of our members in 2014.

In our CAP negotiations, we ensured the Government kept more money in direct payments rather than moving to alternative measures.

We were successful in keeping the potential capping of payments to a minimum, so farming members will be better able to compete within the EU.

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In addition, entitlements for young farmers will now be at the highest level possible.

We have continued to press for further improvements to the planning system to support rural development.

Because of the progress we have made, redundant farm buildings can be developed for offices and houses.

Our vision is for more flexible planning for the Green Belt, including suitable, small-scale developments.

The CLA has also worked hard to protect landlords from further regulation.

We convinced the Government of the positive impact landowners can have in helping minimise flood risks, including a new tax allowance for those investing in flood defence.

With the Government’s push to move more services online we have a duty to continue to lobby for a faster rollout of broadband access to all rural areas.

The introduction of the new Basic Payment Scheme will launch in May so we will be watching closely how effectively the new online system used to verify applications is working.

We have been working closely with the Rural Payments Agency on the development of the web-based programme and have engaged fully with pilot testing.

However, both in a letter to Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Minister George Eustice and in an evidence session to the EFRA Select Committee, CLA President Henry Robinson raised concerns about the speed of the roll-out and communication of the new scheme to farmers.

These are the highlights from a long list of successes, and it is clear that our standing within Westminster and Brussels is good and growing even stronger.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels.

The election in May presents the CLA with a window of opportunity to shape the policies and perceptions of the next Government, whatever colour it may be.

Depending on the Party or Coalition in office, we may also face the possibility of an in–out referendum on our membership of the European Union – the ramifications of this are likely to be vast.

That is why we have been engaging with politicians and prospective candidates from all parties.

We have met with main political parties as they developed their manifestos and, over the coming months, I and the CLA’s regional staff will be meeting candidates and arranging hustings meetings to ensure countryside issues relevant to us all in Suffolk, Essex and across the eastern region are properly understood by decision makers and civil servants in London.

While the outcome of the election is uncertain, it is a definite that I, your advisers, and everyone within the organisation will be working hard this year to ensure your voice is heard at the highest levels both in Westminster and in Brussels.