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What do the main election manifestos say
about farming?

How have the main parties responded to the new opportunity to set out a unique vision for English agriculture?

May 2017

You may be surprised to hear that I awaited the publication of the party manifestos ahead of the upcoming General Election with even more excitement than usual. This was because, for the first time in my lifetime (over 40 years), parties would be able to outline what sort of agricultural policy each party would put in place if they were elected. No longer hamstrung by the EU Common Agricultural Policy, parties would finally be given free rein to set the kind of farming industry they would help shape post-Brexit.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England, alongside most other Link partners, has a strong interest in this as farming covers about 70% of the land area of England and has helped shape the aesthetics and health of the countryside and our natural environment for millennia. And there is no doubt that policies need to change if we want this influence to continue and have a positive impact in the future.

Now that a majority of the manifestos have been released, here is a quick overview of the three main English parties’ commitments on agriculture, with a focus on the environmental impact that is so crucial to the mission of all Wildlife and Countryside Link members, as well as the countryside itself.

The Labour manifesto certainly contains lots of good words about farming. There is a promise to use funds to support ‘smaller traders, local economies, community benefits and sustainable practices’. This is welcome given the majority of CAP funding is currently paid on a land area basis - the bigger the land area owned, the more money the owner receives - regardless of the benefits they are producing for the public.

There is a commitment to support sustainable farming and food through the assurance of maintaining high food standards and animal welfare, as well as investing in skills, technology, market access and innovation. If this is used to support knowledge transfer for farmers as well as big tech, as recommended in CPRE’s 2016 report New Model Farming, then it could help the spread of techniques that reduce the environmental impact of farming, on top of the development of new technologies.

Labour also pledge to maintain food quality and animal welfare standards despite Brexit, expand the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure suppliers and consumers get a fair deal and plant trees.

Liberal Democrats:
The Lib Dems manifesto seems squarely aimed at the youth vote. It is perhaps not surprising then that it contains a number of proposals relating to food and health, and has a strong emphasis on animal welfare. It does, however, contain a number of interesting commitments for the farming industries such as refocusing payments towards public goods (as Link members, together with Greener UK, have been calling for) including countryside protection, and moving support away from larger farms. There is also a novel proposal to encourage younger entrants into farming through different forms of ownership, such as share farming and community ownership.

In addition, the manifesto contains strong assurances that trade deals made will require high environmental and animal welfare standards and clear labelling for food imports. And, like Labour, there is a commitment to extending the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator but also a massive increase in tree planting.

The Conservative manifesto contains less than the others about farming, although what is does say places more emphasis on production – growing and exporting more. It commits to continuing current funding levels to the end of the Parliament – offering some much needed certainty for the farming community. They pledge new frameworks for food production and ‘stewardship of the countryside’, as well as developing a new agri-environment scheme for the next Parliament. And there is also a welcome commitment to support Natural England to ‘expand their provision of technical expertise to farmers to deliver environmental improvements on a landscape scale.’

In contrast to their 2015 manifesto there is no mention of championing the Groceries Code Adjudicator to help farmers get fair prices. And, while there is nothing specific about objectives for agriculture in trade negotiations, their commitment to be ‘the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it’ and produce a 25 year environment plan is retained. To achieve this, environmental management will have to become more integrated into farming.

So, all-in-all, my excitement perhaps wasn’t totally justified – there are only a few novel, interesting commitments in these documents. There are many positive sounding, but rather vague, statements – the key to improving the environmental impact and public benefits that farming delivers will be in developing effective policies and measures. We’ll have to wait until 9 June to know who CPRE and other organisations will be working with to try to deliver that, but we remain hopeful that whoever they will be, they will seek to give English agriculture the policies it needs to thrive outside of the EU, while also enhancing the countryside.

Belinda Gordon

Head of Government and Rural Affairs, CPRE

Find Belinda on Twitter @BelindaGordon49

The opinions expressed are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.