How huge untapped potential of UK’s rural economy could drive growth
PUBLISHED: 15:17 10 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:37 10 January 2020
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The new landowners’ leader for the East of England believes the untapped potential of the rural economy is a “huge opportunity” for the UK as we move into a new era.
Cath Crowther - who grew up on a Welsh sheep farm - was a chartered surveyor at Bidwells when she was chosen as the new director at the eastern regional offices of landowners' lobby group the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) in September 2019, taking over the reins from Ben Underwood.
She believes strongly that there is much more to the UK rural economy than meets the eye - and that policy needs to favour it more heavily in order for it to thrive as it should.
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"The untapped potential of the rural economy is a huge opportunity for the UK. Historically, landowners and farmers have always provided local facilities, provided jobs, but could be doing more and providing more local homes, if there was a system that supported it," she says.
Smaller village housing schemes would have less of an impact than massive ones, she points out, and villagers need housing to support local facilities and services, which are being lost in rural areas.
"We need to have rural areas that are attractive for people to either move into or stay in," she says. "Some of them might go away and come back, but we need the to come back again."
All these issues are close to Cath's heart, having grown up on a mainly arable family farm on the cliff tops of south Wales, which keeps 850 ewes. Her father is "obsessed" with soil health, she says, using digestate from a local anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. Her brother is developing a holiday cottages business with his wife.
"It's something I'm very passionate about is farmers, landowners and rural businesses and trying to ensure their needs are recognised," she says.
Such businesses are often very innovative, she points out, and as a surveyor she has spent time looking at lots of different diversification opportunities on farms.
It's a role which the CLA also plays, helping landowners and businesses with the technical aspects of developing uses for their assets - as well as planning their succession and other aspects of their business.
So far, Cath is "really enjoying" her new role, attending committee meetings across a large swathe of the east area, which includes parts of the Midlands as well as East Anglia, and getting to know members.
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In fact, as a partner at Bidwells in Cambridgeshire, she already knew quite a number of them, she says, which has helped her to hit the ground running. She was there for 10 years and spent the last five years or so focusing on diversifications. Before that, she worked on an AD project in south Wales, and admits that it takes thought to get it right.
"It's a complicated process - that's the issue. AD is a fantastic technology and it's very versatile," she explains.
"The problem is it's like a cow's stomach and it needs to be fed correctly."
There is a whole range of diversifications - whether creating venues or other activities - and each require commitment and enthusiasm.
"Sometimes it might be the next generation that wants to do that. Sometimes they want to carry on farming. If you have got someone who's going to do a better job, sometimes that's a better option, but it's so much a case-by-case basis," she explains.
Now, with Brexit, farmers and landowners are on the cusp of real change - and that's where the CLA will be hoping to provide some guidance, as well as its lobbying might to help power its members through challenging times.
"We know there's going to be a lot of change. The issue we have got at the moment is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of people aren't going to new markets because they don't know what the future holds," she says.
"What we need is the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill to go through because there's a lot of uncertainly around that at the moment."
And landowners and farmers would need time to adapt to any new regime, she says, as systems such as theirs can't be changed overnight.
Trials of new subsidy regimes needed to be large enough scale to know they will work in practice, she adds, and research is needed so farmers can become more profitable and efficient. But landowners are on board with the idea that the environment should be protected - through the right regimes, she says.
"Pretty much all our members want to look after the environment. They love seeing the birds and the wildlife and biodiversity," she says.
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