Farming opinion: The countryside does matter, as new campaign aims to highlight

Ben Underwood, East region director of the Country Land and Business Association.

Ben Underwood, East region director of the Country Land and Business Association. - Credit: Su Anderson

I recently launched the CLA’s new campaign ‘The Countryside Matters’ at the Suffolk Show – the first major event in our agricultural show season. This campaign is aimed at winning the hearts and minds of everybody who loves the countryside and explains the vital importance of investing in the countryside in post-Brexit Britain.

Ben Underwood, Country Land and Business Association (CLA) East regional director, at the Countrysid

Ben Underwood, Country Land and Business Association (CLA) East regional director, at the Countryside Matters launch at the Suffolk Show. - Credit: CLA East

Our message is simple – it is that the countryside matters and its success matters to everyone. It provides us with a large proportion our food and water; it cleans the air we breathe and sustains a rich diversity of wildlife.

These features bring benefits to every person who lives in, works in, or enjoys visiting the countryside but this work requires investment. Once the UK leaves the EU it will be imperative that the government treats farming, the rural economy and our landscapes as a spending priority.

I don’t believe that any recently elected MP would want to cut off funding that ensures our land and our landscape is managed in the best interests of future generations, or ensures we have safe, secure, high quality and affordable food. But for the countryside to succeed it requires investment and strong leadership - and Brexit brings us to a fork in the road.

For the last 43 years most of the oversight, regulation and support for the countryside has come not from our own government but via the European Union. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been just that: common to a diverse range of countries, peoples and climates. Its budgets, rules and environmental laws have been shaped elsewhere. The CAP has been the master of so many, but insensitive at times to national and local needs.

I am optimistic that the government will continue to invest in the countryside - but I am not complacent about this. There are a range of competing demands on the public purse. We have to make the positive case; we have to show that a public and private co-investment in our countryside is a shared priority. A future countryside policy will emerge in various forms throughout the UK and we need to shape it.

We must inspire a new generation of farmers to seize the challenge to improve their industry in every respect - its profitability, output, levels of investment, skill sets, as well as the natural environment in which it sits. We must help them to work together and in new ways, for the better performance of their own businesses and the wider economy.

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The British countryside is the 8th wonder of the world, and the envy of so many. We are all fortunate to be part of it and we recognise that the countryside can benefit from the changing and growing economy, providing people with a home to live, and a place to work and run enterprises with confidence.

Above all, we need long term confidence to invest, to carry out activities previously unthought-of through greater diversification - but without in any way spoiling this great treasure because we must never forget our mutual interest in preserving its quality, its natural state and our ability to share the experience with those who live in towns and cities.

A step change in conservation can be based on a new contract between the farmer and the state - a true partnership that sets out clear goals, rewards and penalties for both parties. A contract that pays a fair return for the services provided such as managing the land to store and clean water, to create and maintain wildlife habitats and by meeting the right standards in production of food.

Meeting these objectives is what the CLA’s ‘Countryside Matters’ campaign is all about. It is about giving everyone a chance to show that they believe the countryside should be a priority, that it is a worthy public investment, and that the return on that investment benefits us all. In short the message is that the countryside matters - for us all and all the time.

Throughout 2017 the CLA will be out making this positive case. We will be mobilising those who live and work in the countryside to ensure their voice is heard at this critical juncture. Above all we will be reaching out to those people who live and work in our towns and cities, whose love for our countryside is no less strong, helping them to understand why investment is needed.

We need your help, so please support the campaign by signing up online at www.thecountrysidematters.org. Together, as individuals and as a coalition of like minded organisations, we can grasp the opportunity ahead. We can leave our political leaders in no doubt that the countryside matters, that supporting it is the right thing to do, and that a living and working countryside benefits us all.