South East Farmer looks at some of the possible outcomes for farming after the General Election votes are counted.

While this year’s South of England Show offered the usual mix of excitement, fun, learning, food, drink and retail therapy, the timing of the event added a more serious dimension for some of those present.

With the general election campaign in full swing and polling day just weeks away, the show provided an opportunity for politicians and pressure groups to set out their stalls or make their requests of the parties hoping to win the keys to Number 10.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) marquee, the setting for an enjoyable breakfast sponsored by Batcheller Monkhouse and Warners Solicitors, offered shelter to a number of politicians who chatted to visitors at ‘round table’ events in the morning and afternoon.

They included John Milne, Liberal Democrat candidate for Horsham, who told South East Farmer that his party would pump £1 billion into farming grants to compensate for what he said had been a “drift” in funding post-Brexit.

Mr Milne said that his party’s pledge was that during the transition from Basic Payments to the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS), designed to pay farmers and landowners for hitting environmental targets – a system he described as “difficult and complicated” – farmers would be no worse off.

He said farmers should be rewarded for their environmental actions but not lose out as a consequence, and stressed that there was also a need to focus on food security while balancing the demand for land for other uses such as housing and solar power.

On planning, Mr Milne said there was a need for closer integration between national and regional policy makers and the local councils that were asked to decide on individual applications.

Locally born Mims Davies, Conservative candidate for East Grinstead and Uckfield, said her party was keen to respond to the needs of the rural community and the rural economy and was determined to boost employment opportunities outside town centres.

She said that while most jobs in areas such as mid-Sussex were outside the towns, the system was designed to deal with urban situations. “We need a better planning system and a better understanding of the rural economy,” she stressed, calling for more investment in council planners who were “not just urban designers”.

Ms Davies pointed out that the Environment Act was the biggest piece of legislation passed in the last parliament and pointed out that her party would continue supporting nature recovery, food security and manufacturing. She also said that while she backed access to the countryside, it should not extend to a full ‘right to roam’.

Dave Rowntree, Labour candidate for Mid-Sussex, pointed out that more than 6,000 agricultural businesses had collapsed since 2017, with the subsequent loss of nearly a third of the rural workforce.

“It’s time we turned the page and embraced a decade of national renewal with the countryside at its heart. Labour’s new deal for farmers will help put the industry back on its feet,” he said.

“We’ll use the government’s buying power to back British produce. We’ll turn on GB Energy, a new publicly owned energy company harnessing clean, home-grown British power, to deliver cheaper bills for farmers.

“We’ll rewire the country, allowing farmers to rapidly plug their renewable energy into the grid, and a new flood resilience taskforce will work to reduce the flood risk to our farms, delivering drainage systems, flood defences and natural flood management schemes.”

On rural crime, Mr Rowntree said Labour would establish the first ever government strategy, improve the police response to rural crime and coordinate the response from different government departments on issues such as fly-tipping.

Planning reform was a clear focus for the CLA’s deputy president Gavin Lane, who said the “vast majority” of members wanted “well-resourced planning departments in local authorities” and added that it was not just a question of money but of employing the right calibre of staff.

As an example of the kind of frustrations facing farmers, he pointed out that to create a reservoir needed an abstraction licence, grant funding and planning permission. “It is the planning permission that slows it down every time,” he said.

In a reflection of Ms Davies’ comments, he pointed out that urban and rural planning needed different skills but said the right mix was not always available within planning authorities.

His CLA wish list post-election also included better rural connectivity, affordable housing in rural areas and an increased budget for agriculture to ensure ELMS could meet the targets set out in the Environment Act.

West Sussex NFU chair Andrew Strong was clear in his demands for whatever party takes power a few days after this July edition of South East Farmer is published.

With farmer confidence at, he claimed, “an all-time low,” he said the industry needed “stability, continuity, a plan that will take us forward for the next three, four, five years and will let farmers know what is around the next corner”.

He said the switch from basic payments to the “zig zags” of ELMS and the Sustainable Farming Incentive had left farmers not knowing where they were – and pointed out that the new funding schemes were in any case not available to tenant farmers with less than three years ‘on the clock’.

Mr Strong stressed that food production had to be at the heart of farming and said that while every farmer sought to hand on his or her land to the next generation in a better state, environmental concerns had to be balanced with food security.

Stressing that this country’s food standards were “the best in the world,” he said free trade agreements with countries with lower standards were “a threat” to the industry.

And he reflected the views of many on the eve of election day when he summed up: “We need to a clear plan that gives farmers the confidence to do what they are good at, keep feeding the country and make a good living.”

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