National rural strategy call from top farming lawyer
Shropshire solicitor Steven Corfield was recently named as the top agricultural lawyer in the Midlands region in the prestigious Legal 500 guide. Here, he explains why a national strategy for the rural economy is needed at a time when the county’s farming community faces tough times ahead.
It is very easy, when we spend much of our lives in towns and cities which are the natural centre of gravity in every
region, to forget that we live in a country that is still 98 per cent rural.
Even in the areas we designate as urban, almost incomprehensibly, four-fifths of that space is not actually built on – it’s made up of parks, gardens, football pitches and so on.
That’s startling in light of how we seem, as a nation, to have largely abandoned our rural industries to their own devices. Manufacturing is seen as a short term solution to our financial woes. We must make things and sell them to ourselves and those beyond our borders and that, apparently, will be our salvation.
Though as important as manufacturing is, it’s not our only industry. When 98 per cent of what you own is rural, that’s a major part of your wealth, as long as you value, nurture and support it.
Post war, our capacity to produce from the land was everything. It made the difference between survival and civic collapse. Food production was prioritised above almost all else and those who had the skill to feed the nation were essential to it.
Now, however, farmers are facing multiple challenges which make their business less appealing by the year. Right now, we have a steady stream of imported food, but what happens if that slows or dries up because of climate change, disease or political instability elsewhere in the world? The Government’s 2015 manifesto proposed a 25 year plan for farming with the aim of “grow more, buy more and sell more British food”. But where is the co-ordinated drive to make sure the industry remains attractive for a wide range of successors in the future?
Our country is climatically quite stable and well resourced, but if the farmers have vanished and then you suddenly need them, where will be the equipment, skills, tended land? You cannot just switch food supply back over night. You lose hundreds of years of hard-won expertise at your peril.
Perhaps more than any other industry, farming requires planning and long term thinking. Just like there are huge resources going into supporting and promoting manufacturing, farming and other rural industries need a vision, a plan and to have the force and will of the state behind it.
Even in our fairly benign climate, small changes in weather patterns and temperatures can change the type of the crops we can raise. Farmers need to plan for that and come up with alternatives. In the face of this, there are other crucial challenges. Financial support is waning seemingly by the year. Where there are payments to support the upkeep of our countryside? They are often late, or wrong.
We expect our farmers to be part of the online first society, keeping records and meeting bureaucratic demands via the internet, but we haven’t prioritised giving them the tool that urban businesses take for-granted – high speed internet.
Water is critical to farming, yet we’re not managing that properly, allowing it to run away in drier times and flood the land in winter, ruining valuable crops. Infrastructure such as new reservoirs is crucial, yet it’s not prioritised, perhaps because no-one votes for you in acknowledgement that you built new water storage…
Farmers were fully playing their part in the need for renewable energy, investing in installations of all kinds, sometimes as a form of diversification for their business – but the financial support for renewables is also being slashed by a Government that pledged to be the greenest ever.
If we vote to leave the European Union, what will happen to farm subsidy? Will our own Government replace it like for like? That seems highly improbable.
So the challenges are many, but not insurmountable.
Farming needs to be smart, to think ahead, to pay its own way because the status quo that worked for 70 years can no longer be relied upon for so many reasons alluded to here. But farming and rural industry are not one, co-ordinated conglomerate.
They are made up of hundreds of thousands of parts and they need a national strategy and support to bring the pieces together. In short, a plan which recognises that food independence is true independence and that to unlock the wealth of 98 per cent of our land area we need to value it, be intelligent about it and work together, for our collective benefit.
Steven Corfield, of Bridgnorth, has been a Partner at FBC Manby Bowdler since 1992, and offers a wide range of advice on all property related matters with an agricultural bias.
Head of the Firm’s Agricultural & Rural Services Team, Steven is a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association, the highest specialist qualification that the organisation grants.
Steven has built up an equine side to his legal practice acting for a number of trainers and sits on the Shropshire and National and Parliamentary Committees of the Country Landowner’s Association.