THE BLOG

Leave or Remain: Supporting the Rural Economy

09/03/2016 11:03 GMT | Updated 09/03/2017 10:12 GMT

The one hard-and-fast rule about a 'Plan B' is to make sure there is one. The farming industry - at the whim in recent years of foot and mouth, bovine TB, crop disease, droughts, flooding, and commodity price crashes to name but a few - understands of the importance of a fall-back plan.

Yet Ministers have stated clearly in recent weeks there is no 'Plan B' being prepared by Government in the case of a vote for Brexit.

Ever since we joined the EU, the rural economy and the way we manage our countryside has been shaped by agricultural and environmental policies drawn up in Brussels. Just as we expect Ministers to have robust strategies for the rural economy for a UK within the EU, so they must be ready if the UK votes to leave. Failing to make swift commitments on the key issues that are vital to the continued health of the rural economy will put jobs and investment at serious risk.

The rural sector is made up of 650,000 businesses employing 3.4 million people in England and Wales. In England alone it contributes £229 billion in gross value added to the national economy, as well as providing an incredible range of public value services, including creating habitats for wildlife, stewardship for woodlands, and helping prevent flooding. Endangering this is risky - the Government may not wish to reveal its plans before polling day, but it is critical that the sector knows the right plans are in formation.

As a membership organisation the CLA is not calling for Leave or Remain. We are seeking answers from both camps and calling for Government to prepare for what may happen next. The sector must play its part too, which is why we have set out the four rural priorities that Ministers' plans need to address.

In 2013, 62 percent of UK agri-food exports were exported within the EU and 70 percent of the UK's agri-food imports came from Europe. The UK trade relationship with the EU is far from perfect, but whatever happens on 23 June, access to EU markets for UK agricultural products must continue.

The prospect of significant reduction in red tape is hard to foresee if the UK leaves the EU. Farming and other rural businesses will need Ministers to commit, in both Leave and Remain scenarios, to working for simpler systems that support rather than restrain commerce and also enable care for the environment.

The UK relies heavily on Eastern European labour in farming. If freedom of movement is restricted, a mechanism must be implemented for farmers and other rural businesses to continue to employ the workforce they need.

Debate over the merits and weaknesses of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) has simmered for many years. Currently almost £4 billion a year is invested via the EU into supporting sustainable agriculture, environmental management and the wider rural economy. New independent research shows that the economic multiplier benefit for the UK economy of this investment is £10 billion, and that it sustains over 370,000 UK jobs - equivalent to around 10 percent of the total rural workforce. That investment must continue whether we are in or out of the EU, but there is potential for damaging uncertainty here.

Farmers have budgeted for their businesses to receive land management payments through to the end of the current CAP framework in 2020. If the UK votes to leave, Ministers will need to confirm they will develop a 'UK Agricultural Policy' that ensures the necessary investment in farming and land management continues beyond Brexit. Every day that passes after a vote to leave will compound the wider crisis we are facing across our farming sector.

If the UK votes to leave, the uncertainties for farming and other rural businesses are immediate. If we vote to remain, there are still critical commitments that Ministers will need to make. We cannot leave plans that are this important to chance - Government must step up to its responsibilities and visibly prepare for both eventualities.

The CLA report 'Leave or Remain: The decisions that politicians must make to support the rural economy', published today, can be found here www.cla.org.uk