Farms 'need more help to diversify'

FARMS in Essex need to diversify more in order to create new jobs and generate income for rural communities, a major new think-tank has been told.

Elliot Furniss

FARMS in Essex need to diversify more in order to create new jobs and generate income for rural communities, a major new think-tank has been told.

Yesterday, the Essex Rural Commission, which has been established to help Essex County Council support its countryside areas, heard from leading experts from the agricultural community.

They told the panel, led by chairman Professor Jules Pretty of Essex University, that farmers needed to have less red tape to go through in order to make the most of their businesses.

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Representatives from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the Haven Gateway Partnership, legal firm Whirledge and Nott, and the Easton College Rural Advice Centre all gave evidence to the commission at Five Lakes Hotel in Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon.

Michael Hughes of Whirledge and Nott, which represents landowners going through the planning process, said farm workshops were the “seedbed” of the rural economy and local authorities needed to be more open to them being opened up for use by small businesses.

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He said: “I don't think we should underestimate their importance. We should encourage that type of development, which will create employment.

“Planning applications can be stressful and time consuming for our farmers.”

He said that although about 70% of farmers already diversified in some way, many did so without the correct planning permission as too often they feared being turned down due to local opposition.

Mr Hughes said it was often the case that businesses would start up in workshops and disused farm buildings and later apply for retrospective planning permission.

Expanding the use of locally-produced timber in the construction industry was also discussed, as was the increased use of woodchip as a source of fuel.

Later in the afternoon the commission, which also counts Professor Germaine Greer and John Clayton, chief executive of the Essex Chambers of Commerce, among its members, looked at the subject of “food security” in the county and how it could be improved.

Prof Pretty said Essex currently produced 75% of the food it needed to support itself and the commission needed to examine how easy it would be in the future to continue to import that remaining 25%.

He said: “The information we gathered will help us come up with solutions that really work for local residents and businesses.”

The commission plans to study a broad range of issues affecting rural communities in the coming months, including the provision of local shops, post offices and schools, affordable homes, transport issues and hidden deprivation.

It will then look to come up with 10 priorities to be put to the county council in the spring.

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