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Rural issues in Kent

PUBLISHED: 11:32 10 January 2016 | UPDATED: 11:32 10 January 2016

Weald of Kent

Weald of Kent

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The EU referendum, environmental land management and the continuing battle against rural crime will be key issues for rural businesses in Kent during 2016

THE referendum on continued membership of the EU is likely to take place during 2016. Because agriculture is such an important aspect of EU policy and budget, membership of the EU will be the most strategically important question facing rural areas since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. It will undoubtedly divide opinion just as that former act did in the 19th century. The CLA’s priority will be to ensure that the fullest possible information is available so that voters can assess and decide what they think is in their own and the country’s best interests.

Because we know what current membership of the EU entails, this does mean it’s important to hear more about the ‘leave’ option and the implications for the rural economy of any changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU.

It is vital that businesses have confidence that all eventualities are being planned for, to prevent uncertainty hampering investment, job creation and growth.

‘Brexit’ is not the only Europe-related issue that will be affecting our rural communities in 2016. It has been a challenging 12 months for many landowners and farmers, as they have struggled with delays and changes to the Basic Payment Scheme, the European support system for the farming industry.

The new Countryside Stewardship scheme, which is designed to encourage land managers to undertake work to protect and improve the environment, also had its problems in 2015.

The overly burdensome reporting requirements and inflexible way the scheme has been managed has resulted in far fewer than expected applications from farmers and landowners.

We hope that in 2016 these teething problems will be addressed so the scheme becomes more viable for applicants as well as delivering the best environmental benefits for the countryside.

Broadband will continue to be a key issue for many rural businesses. New Government plans to introduce a Universal Service Obligation for broadband of 10Mbps by the end of this Parliament is welcome to those affected by poor broadband; the CLA will continue its campaign to ensure this pledge becomes a reality.

In 2016, we will start to see the benefits of new grant funding for rural businesses, provided by Government as part of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE). The funding, available through Local Enterprise Partnership and the West Kent, East Kent and Kent Downs and Marshes LEADER groups, aims to encourage job creation and growth within the rural economy. It is vital that rural Kent stays tuned in to these opportunities, now that applications are open and funds are starting to flow. The CLA will ensure information about these opportunities is available to potential beneficiaries.

We also hope to see continued focus on trying to improve contractual relations in the food chain for those farmers and food producers who struggle to get a fair deal from the supermarkets which are their main route to consumers. There are many who receive reasonable returns, but it is important that we continue to work on behalf of those who are struggling with red tape or not getting a fair deal for their produce.

We anticipate that rural crime will continue to be a challenge for farmers and landowners. A survey by the National Rural Crime Network earlier this year estimated that the cost of crime in rural areas in England and Wales could be in excess of £800m. The CLA will continue to work closely with Kent Police and initiatives such as CRAG to reduce the impact on farmers and rural businesses and we certainly endorse the smart phone app, Country Eye as an excellent way of reporting and drawing attention to rural crime.

There are big decisions ahead and positive opportunities for Kent’s rural community. As always, the CLA will represent the interests of farmers, landowners and all rural businesses in discussions with local and national Government and in Europe, as the New Year gets underway. w

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