Suffolk CLA chairman Edward Vere Nicoll reflects on ‘a difficult year’ for farming

CLA Suffolk branch committee chairman Edward Vere Nicoll.

CLA Suffolk branch committee chairman Edward Vere Nicoll. - Credit: Archant

Diversification – and prompt subsidy payments – may be key to keeping some farm businesses viable next year amid tough economic times, a Suffolk landowners’ leader says.

Edward Vere Nicoll, chairman of the Suffolk Branch Committee of the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA), said ensuring farmers, landowners and rural businesses get the support they need to prosper despite difficult economic conditions will be a key focus for the CLA in 2016.

Farming’s bottom line has been hit again in 2015 by tumbling commodity prices, leaving farmers across the eastern region carefully considering the state of their businesses.

“Farming has been suffering and 2015 has been another difficult year,” said Mr Vere Nicoll. “The Government needs to ensure that the majority of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments are made before the end of 2015, and certainly no later than January 2016. Late payments are going to do nothing for the state of the industry.

“An effective IT system then needs to be put in place to ensure that Common Agricultural Policy is implemented in a simple and cost-effective way to all BPS claimants. Nobody wants to see a repeat of this year’s problems.”

Mr Vere Nicoll also said that the long-term viability of farm businesses can be boosted by diversification projects, but these could only be successful if the correct advice, communications infrastructure, and funding streams were available in support.

“There’s a lot of good work going on in Suffolk to try and make farming profitable,” he said. “Diversification not only helps to boost the bottom line, but shows rural businesses to be innovative and relevant, as well as a significant contributor to the nation’s economy.

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“The CLA has been holding events across the eastern region and offering members support and advice so they can plan new ventures effectively.

“However, these businesses need access to good mobile phone coverage as well as fast, effective and affordable broadband – and we still do not have this in many parts of Suffolk.

“With every week that goes by, homes and businesses across the county are being held back by the broadband running at glacial speeds and a mobile phone signal so poor users can’t even make a call.

“The Government needs to ensure this is corrected as soon as possible so that rural businesses have the same level of digital connectivity as those in urban settings.”

Local Authorities need to be encouraged to take a “genuinely constructive” approach to Permitted Development Rights (PDR), he added.

“PDR allows farmers and landowners to change the use of traditional agricultural buildings, no longer suitable for use due to modern framing practices, to residential or commercial purposes.

“This has the potential to underpin farming businesses and boost the rural economy across the region, but many local planning authorities are refusing applications for conversions of this type, particularly to residential use, even though this is often the only option that can be economically viable.

“There is also a need to raise awareness of LEADER and other rural business funding streams,” he said. “As well as getting people to know there is money available to boost their businesses, we need these schemes to be accessible with a simple application process.”

The Chancellor’s decision not to apply any further cuts to the policing budget in the recent Autumn Statement was welcomed by Mr Vere Nicoll. “It’s pleasing that there will be no further cuts for the police to suffer, because we need the manpower to help tackle rural crime,” he said. “Fly-tipping, as well as fuel and machinery theft remain real problems. However, everyone who loves and lives in the countryside also needs to come together and help the police by reporting rural crime.

“If people do not report crime, the statistics don’t offer a true reflection of what’s happening on the ground. The consequence is that the police may then reassign resources away from rural areas.”