The New Year offers me a chance to take stock of what has been achieved by the CLA in 2014 and look ahead to the changes that 2015 could bring.
In our CAP negotiations, we ensured the Government kept more money in direct payments rather than moving to alternative measures.
We were successful in keeping the potential capping of payments to a minimum, so farming members will be better able to compete within the EU.
In addition, entitlements for young farmers will now be at the highest level possible.
We have continued to press for further improvements to the planning system to support rural development. Because of the progress we have made, redundant farm buildings can be developed for offices and houses. Our vision is for more flexible planning for the Green Belt, including suitable, small-scale developments.
The CLA has also worked hard to protect residential landlords from further regulation.
We convinced the Government of the positive impact landowners can have in helping minimise flood risks, including a new tax allowance for those investing in flood defence.
With the Government’s push to move more services online we have a duty to continue to lobby for a faster rollout of broadband access to all rural areas. The introduction of the new Basic Payment Scheme will launch in May so we will be watching closely how effectively the new online system used to verify applications is working.
We have been working closely with the Rural Payments Agency on the development of the web-based programme and have engaged fully with pilot testing. However, both in a letter to Defra Minister George Eustice and in an evidence session to the EFRA Select Committee, CLA President Henry Robinson raised concerns about the speed of the roll-out and communication of the new scheme to farmers.
These are the highlights from a long list of successes, and it is clear that our standing within Westminster and Brussels is good and growing even stronger. However, we cannot rest on our laurels.
Given the forthcoming General Election in May (without doubt the most uncertain one for 70 years) and the likely environmental, economic and regulatory changes that are ahead, issues such as CAP, planning, flooding, and water security should be top of farmers’ agendas.
The election in May presents the CLA with a window of opportunity to shape the policies and perceptions of the next Government, whatever colour it may be. Depending on the Party or Coalition in office, we may also face the possibility of an in–out referendum on our membership of the European Union – the ramifications of this are likely to be vast.
That is why we have been engaging with politicians and prospective candidates from all parties.
We have met with main political parties as they developed their manifestos and, over the coming months, I and other staff from the CLA regional office will be meeting candidates and arranging hustings meetings to ensure countryside issues relevant to us all in Fenland and across the eastern region are properly understood by decision makers and civil servants in London.
While the outcome of the election is uncertain, it is a definite that I, your advisers, and everyone within the organisation will be working hard this year to ensure your voice is heard at the highest levels both in both the UK and European parliaments.