If you could achieve just one thing during your presidency, what would it be?
The successful implementation of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.
It’s an opportunity to prove that a voluntary farmer-led approach to managing the environment can work. Its success will be a strong argument to warding off future regulation. The alternative will be much more expensive and far worse than what we’ve known as pure set-aside.
What will you bring to the post?
Financial acumen and business experience.
As well as being a farmer, I serve as a non-executive director of the Skipton Building Society and an investment trust, so I have a good background in business, as well as agriculture.
But the CLA is often seen as an organisation for hunting, shooting and fishing landowners, rather than for hands-on farmers. How do you respond to that?
The perception is wrong.
We are a land management organisation and the bulk of our members are owner-occupier farmers. But we also have well over 250 different types of diversified businesses in membership.
When we launched our Just Ask campaign to promote British food, we did so at an Indian restaurant in London. They are CLA members too, so you can see we have a very diverse membership – the perception couldn’t be further from the truth.
Younger members are important and engaging with a younger audience will be a key part of my presidency. We are planning to launch a young CLA membership category next year – it’s vital for organisations like us to engage with the next generation.
What’s your vision for the CAP post-2013? How will you lobby to ensure that vision becomes a reality?
We will be lobbying hard in Brussels for a food and environmental security policy that plays to the strength of British farmers.
It’s fair to say that farmers are heavily reliant on public support and we think the public can understand that having a secure food supply and a well-managed environment are worth playing for. But it’s vital that the government is sure about what it wants from a Common Agricultural Policy – what it wants the CAP to achieve. Only then can we assess the necessary EU budget.
We fear that the reverse is being done and we think that’s wrong.
The next few years are going to see severe limits on public spending. What is the best argument to ensure farming gets its fair share of public expenditure?
This reiterates the importance of our campaign for a food and environmental security policy. Although there’s no current risk to European food security, anticipated growth in the world’s population means there could be in the future.
It’s essential to retain the infrastructure of the industry as this will affect our capacity to farm. With poor profitability over the past 15 years, there’s been a real lack of investment in infrastructure such as drainage and farm buildings. It is a worrying situation.
You’ve backed the Royal Society’s call for a £2bn investment in agricultural R&D. But realistically, the government doesn’t have the money. How can the industry help itself?
We have to take the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board very seriously. It’s a mechanism by which farmers can help themselves and it’s farmer-controlled. We must encourage farmers to get involved. We must also work more closely with colleagues in other European countries.
One example is the International Energy Agency, which shares information and best practice on biogas across members in different countries.
The NFU moved its HQ out of London a few years ago, prompting speculation that the CLA might follow suit. Do you see this happening?
The answer is no. We’ve got a very good deal on our London office and it’s not expensive.
It wouldn’t be cost-effective for us to move. It’s important to be close to decision-makers and this makes the location of our London office very good. We also have big regional offices and this gives us national coverage.
The CLA has many non-farming rural business members – businesses that benefit from funds raised by reducing farm subsidies. How do you get the balance right between serving your farming and non-farming members?
The bulk of rural development programme money is only really available to farming businesses, a high proportion of which have diversified into non-farming activities. We think that using this money to improve rural infrastructure, such as broadband, is a highly intelligent use of these funds.
Economic diversification is healthy, but we don’t like modulation and would rather that it wasn’t happening.
LANTRA recently warned that UK agriculture must attract 60,000 new entrants over the next decade. How should farming go about this?
About 6000 people are needed every year – which is pretty normal turnover for an industry of this size. But we will continue to work with Fresh Start and the Tenancy Reform Industry Reform Group to ensure that the landlord-tenant system continues to offer opportunities to entrepreneurial farmers.
The best way of ensuring that people want to join the industry is a profitable and vibrant agricultural sector.
Many big agricultural shows are shutting their gates for the last time, but the CLA Game Fair goes from strength to strength. What lessons can agricultural show societies learn from its success?
The Game Fair is different to many agricultural shows, many of which are run very well. But it is very important to listen to exhibitors and visitors – and meet their needs. At the Game Fair, we carry out a survey every year and endeavour to do just that.
What do you see as being the biggest rural issue outside farming?
Climate change will affect everything. But I think the two biggest issues right now are planning and access to broadband.
Quite frankly, the planning system is a mess. Good policies at a national level just don’t filter down to a local level.
The planning process is too bureaucratic and cumbersome. Government policy requires local authorities to use sustainability as a test in assessing applications but this can cause confusion.
In Tynedale, 14 villages were deemed unsustainable for new affordable housing because they had no village shops. But the reason the shops had closed was because there were no longer enough people in the villages to support them.
We are lobbying the government and the opposition hard on this. We are preparing a new planning policy statement and I very much hope to be in a position to launch it early next year.
Your campaign for better rural broadband has really captured the imagination of the mainstream media. What can we expect over the coming months?
We’ll continue to campaign and work with regional partners to find local solutions. The government is committed to everyone having a minimum broadband speed of 2Mbps by 2012. But its own Digital Britain report isn’t clear whether this should be measured at the exchange or the computer. We believe it should be at the computer.
If it’s at the exchange, then it is likely that rural businesses won’t be able to receive anything like 2Mbps at home. For rural businesses to survive, broadband is a must, just like good mobile phone coverage.
We also have a concern over the word “commitment”. We want the government to put an obligation on broadband providers, in much the same way that BT is legally bound to provide people with a telephone connection.
What single farming issue should the next government make its priority?
Eradication of bovine tuberculosis – there’s absolutely no doubt about it. The impact on farmers and the cost of culling cows is awful, and so too is the social cost.