By CHRIS HILL, Rural affairs correspondent
Monday, January 28, 2013
A Norfolk MP has pledged to deliver the wide-ranging concerns of her constituency’s farmers to government ministers following a discussion forum.
South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss hosted a farming forum on Friday at The Crown Hotel in Mundford, near Thetford, which discussed a wide snapshot of local agricultural issues ranging from flood management to European policy changes
The meeting was attended by about 15 local farmers as well as Sarah Wilson from Natural England and Dr Geoff Brighty, area manager for the Environment Agency.
Ms Truss said the points raised would be collated into a letter and sent to environment secretary Owen Paterson and Defra minister Richard Benyon.
Following one of the wettest years on record, one of the most immediate concerns was about flood protection, and the importance of taking the “strategic value” of agricultural land into account when deciding where investment is targeted.
Mr Brighty said £4m was spent on maintenance in his area every year, which includes the catchment of the river Wissey. He said: “The money I get is directed to the highest risk areas in my catchment, so it always favours communities.
“The policy focuses on people and property but the flooding has given us an opportunity to look at how we manage catchments sustainably. In the last year, farmers who know each other’s cropping cycles have been trading water with their neighbours. It could be done on a more formal basis.”
Another farmer asked why abstraction licences were limited to a five-month time window, rather than based on river flow to allow vital irrigation water to be taken when it was available.
Mr Brighty said: “There are daily discussions about how much water is available for abstraction. But at the moment we have got more water than we know what to do with.”
The farmers were told that progress was being made to help agricultural developments which had been halted by the protective zones set up to safeguard stone curlews, a rare bird which has a population stronghold in Breckland.
Ms Wilson told the meeting that, following a recent meeting with farmers, union officials, planning authorities and wildlife charities at Elveden Estate, a final “draft protocol” for permitted farm projects was almost complete.
“We have a draft proposal for agricultural buildings, and we are really committed to making the best use of the evidence base, and that includes farmers. It may be a slow process, but it is all-inclusive,” she said.
“There are wide-ranging proposals for development, and it is a question of seeing how those could move forward without being seen to be unduly blocked by the needs of stone curlews.”
Another area of uncertainty for agricultural businesses surrounded the ongoing EU negotiations to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, and what will happen to funding for environmental stewardship schemes when the current rural development programme ends.
Ms Wilson said: “The current rural development programme finishes this year and it is unlikely that the new one will be ready to replace it, so there is this uncertainty between the end of one programme and the start of the next one. We are very conscious of the uncertainties facing farmers, but we are going to have to live with that uncertainty until we know more.”
Ian Monson, who farms at Oxborough near Swaffham and is also chairman of Norfolk County Council, asked: “What contingency is going to be made if there is a referendum and we come out of Europe?”
Ms Truss said: “We are a net contributor to the EU, so if there is a referendum there would be a surplus generated if we were to leave the EU. We have the system set up for payments and that could be operated on a national basis.”
Ms Truss also raised her own concerns about renewable energy developments, and said she was keen to see food production prioritised over growing maize or straw for biomass energy plants.
“The point with renewable energy is that if it uses waste then it is good, but the issue I have is where it uses land that could be used for food production,” she said.
2014 brought mixed fortunes for East Anglia’s wildlife and, in a region which is naturally abundant in wild places and farmland habitats, there have been some stand-out moments – both good and bad – during the last 12-month cycle of the seasons.