Wells Constituency MP James Heappey joined Farming Minister George Eustice in meetings with the National Farmers Union and other rural groups during the minister’s visit to the Bath & West Show.
In a speech to over 200 guests active in the rural economy, Minister Eustice set out the Government’s thinking on post-Brexit agricultural subsidy suggesting a focus on subsidising beneficial environmental measures rather than simply land ownership.
This direction of travel has been well trailed by the Government with Environment Secretary Michael Gove unveiling the draft plans in a consultation paper last year.
However, questions from the audience after Mr Eustice’s speech suggested a cautious welcome as farmer’s sought to understand how the transition might affect their subsidy. Mr Eustice reassured them that the transition would take many years and re-emphasised the commitment that current subsidy levels would be maintained until 2022.
He also confirmed that grants and advice would be available to help farmers diversify as well as to adopt more environmentally friendly practises on their farms. Mr Heappey asked the minister to comment on the Government’s recent decision to look at reducing UK carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ given the levels of methane produced in dairy and meat farming and the likely cost to farmers of achieving the necessary reductions.
Mr Eustice confirmed that the measures needed to achieve reductions would likely attract Government support and that both offsetting and sequestration would be important too.
The Minister then toured the show during which he met with South West farmers in a meeting hosted by the NFU with Mr Heappey and Police & Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens. Farmers discussed further the Government’s plans for future agricultural subsidy as well as raising issues relating to the availability of labour, rural crime and maintaining food standards during trade negotiations with countries outside the EU.
Mr Eustice acknowledged the labour issues arising from both low unemployment and a reduction in immigration and reassured that there would be no reduction in UK food standards as part of any trade deals. He also commended Avon & Somerset Police for their work in tackling rural crime before setting out what measures the Government was taking to increase police powers in this area.
Mr Heappey said: “Leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is a huge opportunity for our farmers. Whilst the subsidy has been important to many, there’s no escaping that we’ve always got less back from the CAP than we’ve been putting in. Furthermore, the subsidy of landownership has meant that the largest EU pay outs have been going to the very largest landowners which is spectacularly regressive. “We cannot compromise on our food security and so we need farmers to keep farming but I like the proposal that future subsidy be based on environmental benefit. In Somerset we would see an obvious benefit from subsidy for flood mitigation measures like greater attenuation in upland areas or greater protection of our water courses to improve bathing water quality nearer to the coast.
Later in the day, Mr Heappey signed up to the Country Land & Business Association’s ‘4G For All’ campaign to put pressure on the mobile phone companies to deliver 4G mobile phone coverage to rural areas.
Mr Heappey added: “Whilst tens of thousands of people have been having a wonderful fun family day at the Bath & West Show, there’s also been some important business going on too. It was great to see the Farming Minister here and engaging so knowledgably and with such enthusiasm for our rural economy. Improving connectivity, providing the labour needed by our food producers, tackling rural crime and understanding the opportunities beyond Brexit are all vital to our communities and it was good to part of those discussions today.”