Anna Blackaby looks at the big issues facing UK agriculture and its political importance ahead of the General Election.
Quangos, Government cost-cutting and badgers are among the issues likely to be big vote-swingers in the region’s rural communities at election time.
In many respects, the problems facing farmers in the West Midlands are no different to other sectors.
Complaints about the paperwork emanating from the numerous quangos that have sprung up in recent years, as well as fears that the axe will fall on the wrong part of Government support, will resonate with many in other sectors.
But as farming is so intricately tied up with food supply, energy security, climate change and wildlife protection, many of the questions the sector raises are politically divisive.
One of the most serious problems at the moment is bovine TB, a disease that ends in the culling of thousands of cattle a year. The West Midlands is among the worst-affected areas in the country and currently forms the frontline of the disease as it edges up from the South-west and across from Wales.
Farmers say the Government is beholden to the wildlife protection lobby as it has long resisted calls to implement a cull of infected badgers which spread the disease in the countryside, as has been done successfully in Ireland.
Labour has instead focused its efforts on vaccination, a measure many in agriculture believe will take too long to arrive and will see farmers continue to suffer while it is being developed.
Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have promised a badger cull, targeting infected animals.
Harry Johnson, a Warwickshire arable farmer and NFU county chairman, said he would like to see all the political parties take a “robust view” on controlling bovine TB.
“It’s a huge cost to the Government. Not a lot of the public are aware that it’s approaching £100 million a year in compensation and control, and it’s escalating year on year. More than that is the human cost of the disease, with families that have built up pedigree herds over a lifetime seeing them taken away and slaughtered. It’s a tragedy,” he said.
The Conservative aversion to quangos is also visible in their approach to the farming sector, which has seen 67 non-departmental bodies spun out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
As in other areas, the party has committed to reducing this number.
Matt Ware, NFU senior parliamentary adviser, said there was huge potential for the cost savings made from pruning back the numerous quangos to be rechannelled into more effective support.
“We feel there is a gold seam of cost savings available and these are in the government quangos that have been set up, such as Natural England and the Environment Agency, which have basically been offshoots of Defra,” he said. “Instead of being executive agencies that supply information in their specialism, they have developed empires that have their own lobbying and press function, which they shouldn’t have.”
And along with the proliferation of agencies comes an increasing burden on farmers who have to undergo numerous inspections from the various different bodies.
Mr Ware said: “We want to see on-farm inspections being carried out in a single go where they do everything at once.
“At the moment we have the Environment Agency, the Rural Payments Agency, Natural England and others, with all the duplication of inspector costs that that entails, and the farmer has to have six or seven checks rather than just one. It’s simple – get rid of the duplication.”
The Conservatives have made pledges to simplify the inspection regime, saying that any farm which complies with schemes such as the independently-inspected Red Tractor initiative will see a lower frequency of state inspection.
Mr Ware said: “Right the way across the board it’s a very regulated sector.
“The Tories are saying rather than have farmers seen as criminals and rigorously checking them, they are going to presume you are innocent. But if you are found to be wrong or fraudulent, then they will come down on you like a ton of bricks.”
Mr Johnson pointed to what he described as the “wastefulness” of the various agencies set up to support initiatives like the Single Farm Payment – the EU’s agricultural subsidy scheme.
“Defra is spending huge sums of money. To process each claim cost £1,740 in England whereas to process them in Scotland it cost £285.
“We’ve got huge waste within the system. We’re being asked to farm more efficiently but we would like to see Government get its own house in order.”
He added the next government needed to make sure farming was sustainable long term through incentives to enable more young people to enter the industry and to support investment in farms.
“The main thing is tackling those things that are an immediate burden on the industry – that’s regulation, TB, difficulties with the Single Farm Payment – these are real issues that we are dealing with day to day,” he said.
“But then we need to look further forward. We need to have a vibrant industry that is attractive for young people, one that looks at renewable technology. We need a continuation of favourable tax breaks and incentives so we can invest in the business, and also the reintroduction of tax breaks that have been removed.”