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Selaine Saxby: The next prime minister must level up our countryside to retain the trust of rural communities

4 min read

The next Conservative Party leader needs to continue levelling up our country and expand the government's plans to include rural communities.

We need to level up our countryside to retain the trust of places like North Devon, which I represent, and win back constituencies like Tiverton and Honiton at the next election. That does not just mean improving digital connectivity but creating new opportunities outside our cities and large towns for people and businesses. 

Just as our net zero ambition drives the green industrial revolution in places like Teesside, our natural environmental goals can help drive investment into rural areas like Devon.

Sustainable farming and nature restoration can create jobs and support rural economies by boosting agriculture and tourism. But the Levelling Up White Paper did not include nature or farming. The next prime minister must expand the government's levelling up agenda to unlock the countryside's potential.

A recent report by the Rural Powerhouse APPG identified payments for enhancing our natural environment as one of the ways to boost the rural economy. More than 300 industry leaders and organisations, such as the National Farmers' Union, have set out a new green finance roadmap for the rural economy that shows how we can attract investment in environmental improvements, like reducing river pollution and improving biodiversity. I agree with the NFU that it is time for "a new economic model for farming and our countryside". 

ELM schemes will give farmers a new income stream, boost rural economies and support nutritious food production

The primary way the next prime minister can level up the countryside is by continuing to reap Brexit's green opportunities. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) awarded the biggest 10 per cent of landowners half of the land subsidies budget and did little to support food production or improve the environment. The new Sustainable Farming Incentive, the first Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) to replace CAP, will reward sustainable farming practices, benefiting farmers and our environment. 

ELMs will reward landowners with public money for environmental public goods like cleaner rivers and more wildlife. The schemes will give farmers a new income stream, boost rural economies and support nutritious food production. The initial payments are focused on improving our soils, but farmers will get paid for other actions like planting hedgerows and trees in the future.

The economic benefits of supporting sustainable farming and nature restoration are enormous. Fertile soils mean higher yields and fewer expensive imported fertilisers. Healthy soils are more resilient to threats from climate change like flooding and drought. And biodiversity means more natural predation of pests and fewer costly pesticides. Scrapping CAP and delivering ELMs is crucial to providing these environmental benefits.

At this time of increased concern about our food security and recognising how reliant we are on our farmers, the new prime minister also needs to recognise that the transition from CAP to ELMs is creating much uncertainty in our farming community. The 25 per cent inflationary pressure farmers are under is already resulting in less planting than the country and the wider world need. The NFU in the southwest continue to call for additional support through this transition, and a farming advisory service, to support farmers through the transition as the schemes are far too complex for many smaller farmers to navigate and benefit fully from.

The next prime minister should also help set up new markets so farmers and land managers can sell water quality, biodiversity and carbon credits to businesses wanting to meet their new environmental commitments or to comply with government regulations. Developing these new markets would make farm businesses more profitable and resilient. It would create new lucrative revenue streams, particularly on farms with areas of marginal agricultural land that are not well suited for food production but could provide valuable habitat. We should also ensure farmers' work to improve their land and produce nutritious food sustainably is reflected in the price supermarkets pay them with better industry procurement standards. 

It does not get more conservative than establishing new markets for protecting our natural environment. This policy is also fairer for taxpayers and farmers. The government's new policy is supported by more than half of Conservative voters, with just 11 per cent opposed. Yet, some are calling for ELMs to be delayed or ditched. But keeping the wasteful EU land subsidy system would lock farmers into high input, expensive farming methods and undermine progress on reducing chemical runoff into our rivers. The next prime minister should ignore these calls and roll them out on time to support farmers while ensuring the right transitional support is in place, protecting our environment and levelling up the countryside.


Selaine Saxby is the Conservative MP for North Devon.

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