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Gathered in York for Spring Conference, on Saturday 18 March some of the Liberal Democrats' heaviest rural hitters joined the Countryside Alliance and a solid complement of party activists and guests for a wide-ranging discussion of countryside politics.
Under the chairmanship of Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner, former Party leader and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson Tim Farron MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland and Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, and North Shropshire by-election winner Helen Morgan MP tackled the big issues facing rural Britain. Our event, "Sustaining Rural Communities in the Carbon Trading Age", had been postponed from the autumn owing to National Mourning.
Helen Morgan's December 2021 by-election win came in a previously safe Conservative seat, and in her opening presentation she said that dangers to the rural economy had been one of the issues that defined her campaign.
To applause from the audience, she said she shared the concerns of her community about large corporations and celebrities buying up land to plant trees, to offset the environmental damage caused by their regular activities. Rural communities, she argued, are already facing great change and their survival relies on a thriving local economy, not being used to salve the consciences of the wealthy so they can continue to take weekly long-haul flights.
Alistair Carmichael expressed gratitude to the Alliance for coming to Conference, given the importance of rural areas to the Party's electoral ambitions. He said he found the gap in understanding between urban dwellers and people living in the countryside increasingly alarming, since most of the policy affecting the countryside is made by people who live in towns and cities; this risks unintended consequences.
He argued that the Government's trade deals could make it possible to import food produced to lower welfare and environmental standards than would be permitted in the UK, and coming from a farming family he understood the risk of it beating domestic produce on price. Agricultural policy must not only promote biodiversity but also keep people living and working in the countryside; currently it is largely about supporting supermarkets in an attempt to keep food cheap. While 'rewilding' advocates would argue that relatively rough farmland such as his family's should simply be left to go wild, the species that thrive there require livestock farming to continue.
Tim Farron reiterated the Liberal Democrats' ambition to be the party of the countryside. He agreed with Alistair Carmichael on trade deals and said the opportunity to move away from the Common Agricultural Policy could be a Brexit benefit. Expressing support for the principle behind the Government's Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), he said that the current transition, phasing out the Basic Payment, risks forcing farmers either to go broke or go backwards on environmental protection by raising levels of production. He also agreed with Helen Morgan that some elements of the package risk incentivising multinational companies to buy up farmland, evict its tenants and claim large sums of public money to do close to nothing with it.
Audience questions ranged widely across the rural policy landscape but one major theme was food security. Tim Farron said that farmers are responsible both for feeding the country and saving the planet, and are not sufficiently rewarded for it. The UK, he said, produces only 60% of the food we need, and what we don't produce for ourselves we must source from international commodities markets, in turn inflating prices paid by the poorest countries in the world; producing food is therefore a moral imperative.
In terms of how ELMS could be improved, he said the Government should move away from the EU concept of funding environmental work based on income forgone; instead, he argued, active land managers – tenants, not landowners – should be paid based on the value of the work they do.
To end the session Tim Farron was asked his opinion of attacks on livestock farming conducted by the 'plant-based' movement through local councils, including the Liberal Democrat-led Oxfordshire, which the Countryside Alliance has vigorously opposed. He said that despite having been a vegetarian for several decades, he completely supports the Alliance's position. Displacing livestock farming to other countries with worse standards than the UK's would, he agreed, do far more harm than good.
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