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Norfolk’s rural economy demands funding certainty and a ‘level playing field’ after Brexit

PUBLISHED: 07:54 11 May 2018 | UPDATED: 07:54 11 May 2018

Gulls following the plough on a field in Langley near Loddon.
Picture: Nick Butcher

Gulls following the plough on a field in Langley near Loddon. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

Norfolk’s farms and countryside businesses need urgent clarity on the future of rural funding streams and a “level playing field” for food producers after Brexit.

The butchery expansion at Swannington Farm to Fork benefited from an EU-funded LEADER grant. Picture: Ian BurtThe butchery expansion at Swannington Farm to Fork benefited from an EU-funded LEADER grant. Picture: Ian Burt

Those were among the key messages from the Norfolk Rural Strategy Steering Group and Norfolk County Council in their response to the government’s 10-week consultation on post-EU policies for food, farming and the environment.

The consultation, which closed on Monday, included proposals to phase out the EU’s system of land-based farm subsidies in favour of a new system of paying public money for “public goods”, such as environmental enhancements, biodiversity and high animal welfare standards.

Norfolk’s response says EU-funded programmes like LEADER and the Rural Growth Programme had invested in productivity and growth opportunities in areas such as animal welfare, food processing and storage, which would not have been available through mainstream agriculture funding.

It lists case studies including Swannington Farm to Fork near Reepham, whose farm shop and butchery expansion was awarded £54,000 of LEADER funding which boosted their ability to supply meat directly to local pubs and restaurants, as well as to the public.

But the county’s report says unless transition funding is made available from March 2019, this vital financial pipeline for rural businesses will dry up.

It says: “It is vitally important in considering how best to support agriculture and food processing businesses in future, and in implementing an effective food policy, to put in place funding support which enables agriculture businesses to use new technologies and targeted infrastructure investment to grow and strengthen.

“LEADER and the Rural Growth Programme have invested with considerable success in farm shops, and direct farm vending, with a positive impact on the tourism economy, access to quality food, and on the resilience of farm businesses. Investment in direct on-farm sales outlets will be needed to ensure the future of some farming businesses as direct payments are phased out.

“We are very concerned at the lack of clarity for future financial support to the rural economy: Defra has set an earlier end date for the end of its schemes than every other EU funding programme (last commitment in March 2019 vs December 2020 in other programmes). The impact of this is that rural projects that are not in the pipeline now are unlikely to be able to meet the timetable for funding through the LEADER or EAFRD (European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development) programmes. Yet it is entirely unclear what the future shape of funds will be.

“Our staff are on fixed term contracts which will start to expire from March 2019. Without clarity around funding, staff, and the expertise that they hold, will be lost from the programmes. Equally, awareness of and interest in funding opportunities will be lost. This knowledge takes time to build up in rural areas where it is harder for publicity to reach potential applicants.

“For all of these reasons, it is imperative that transition funding is put in place from March 2019, with clear information available very soon so we can continue to develop a pipeline of projects. Otherwise, we may reach a point where we do not have established support in place for businesses trying to grow during the Brexit process, in other words at a time when the economy may be turbulent and support for economic growth will be especially needed.”

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

The Norfolk response says many aspirations outlined in Defra’s consultation “will make UK-grown food more expensive” – meaning the wider effects of trade and tariffs on farming competitiveness need to be “articulated in full”.

“The government’s vision and proposals for all aspects of growing, importing and selling food need to be articulated in full, together with a clear plan for investment, before farmers and food producers can make informed investment and diversification decisions,” it says.

“The clear message from Norfolk is that farmers need a level playing field following Brexit. They are willing to invest and to innovate, but need assurance that they do not work from a position of disadvantage.”

That sentiment was echoed by the National Farmers’ Union, whose president Minette Batters said: “I am clear on what success will look like. I want British farmers and growers to remain the number one supplier of choice to the UK market, and I want British people to be able to enjoy more sustainable, quality, affordable British food at a range of different prices that suit all incomes.”

LOWLAND LANDSCAPES

Norfolk’s response also says future policies must correct “a clear bias within the consultation towards upland landscapes” by investing in the county’s equally valuable lowlands.

“There are significant lowland landscapes in Norfolk which require similar nurturing to retain their distinctiveness and environmental value,” it says.

“The Broads Authority Area, the Norfolk Coast AONB (Area of Natural Beauty), the Brecks, Fens and grazing marshes along river valleys are all examples of locations where farming practice is key to maintaining the environment in a strong state.”

The report says the historic environment is a “clear public good” which brings tourism appeal to a Norfolk visitor economy worth £3.15bn per year.


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