An enthusiastic audience of 65 members and their guests celebrated St George’s Day at The Farmers Club with a superb luncheon, followed by a fascinating speech from Lord Cameron.
The Club was decorated with red and white flowers, including beautiful red roses for St George’s Day, and the sun graced us with its presence, allowing many members to head onto the Terrace for a pre- pre-lunch drink!
A Chapel Down English Sparkling Wine Reception was held in the Lounge, where Stephen Skinner, Club Secretary welcomed everyone, before lunch was enjoyed in the newly decorated Eastwood Room and Restaurant.
The menu comprised Wild Rabbit Pate, Crushed Pear Chutney and Smoked Chicory to start, followed by 21-day Dry Aged Loin of Beef, cooked for 14 hours, accompanied by Mushrooms and a Cauliflower and Sage Fritter. To finish a Blue Stilton Cream with a Port Sauce and Old English Cherry Biscuit………….delicious! To accompany there was an English wine, Coleridge Hill, followed by the Club Claret.
Our Guest Speaker was The Lord Cameron of Dillington. Taking the challenge of change in the countryside as his topic, Lord Cameron noted that every year of this century the rural population has grown by about 60,000 - a growth of 6.4%. Urban growth is over 8% and is 50% fuelled by inward net migration.
When last surveyed 80% of our population wanted to live in the countryside. Incomers were mostly good for the countryside, for instance in terms of the local economy and the sustainability of services – banks, post offices and even government services (health, schools, libraries and even transport). All these are more likely to survive if more people with money are using them, he noted.
The biggest challenge of the influx was the pressure it put on the housing market. There was a limited supply and this combined with lower wages in rural Britain made the housing gap perilous for rural families and indeed for proper or effective rural communities.
“To some extent I think we can do more to increase the supply of rural houses – over the past 5 years the annual number of houses built hit an all time low not seen since the 1920s,” he said. “But above all we must do all we can to increase the supply of affordable housing. Anyone who knows the families in their village understands the need for more affordable housing, but I’m afraid that too often it is the newcomers who oppose more housing, affordable or not. John Gummer called it the Nodam effect (No Development After Mine).”
Turning to farming he acknowledged it was not an important industry in terms of rural employment, representing less than 4% of rural employment and about the same in terms of rural GDP. “But it is the backbone to everything we hold dear about the countryside.”
It provides the backdrop to a rural tourism industry, worth over £17bn/year to rural England in terms of GDP – over £30bn/year in terms of pure revenue.
Equally important, the countryside was still the heart and lungs of the nation, and with its huge variety of landscapes, in spite of England being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, was capable of being the dream and aspiration of our people.
Bill Bryson wrote that one of the most distinguishing features of the English countryside was that it was loved by its people more than any other countryside on earth.
“Meanwhile, with [commodity] prices generally very low (milk, wheat, potatoes) I suspect that most farmers last year would have struggled, without the SFP, to make a return on capital - in terms of purely growing food. And that phrase “in terms of purely growing food” is probably the biggest farming change in recent decades,” he continued.
“Farming food may be a pretty unrewarding industry in terms of return on capital, and in my view is likely to remain so in spite of world food shortages, if the past is anything to go by. From 1968 to 1998 the world population doubled, but in that time the farmgate prices of our staple foods – wheat, rice and maize – fell by 60% in real terms. But luckily for us farmers, there is nowadays so much more to the farm economy than producing food.”
- Tourism, everything from B&Bs to weddings, to nature tours, to shooting or go-karting and holiday lets – and that’s not to mention ordinary local cottage rentals. Many farms nowadays are involved in selling something to the public other than food.
- Energy: hydro, wind (not so popular) and PV (not quite so unpopular).
- Businesses in old farm buildings.
“I’m proud to say that on my farm in Somerset, with over 200 jobs, we have more people working on the farm than there ever was at the height of agricultural employment before the Corn Laws were repealed. The fact that these people are involved in computer software, accounting, insurance, event organising, veterinary practice and the defence industry is neither here nor there. Because, of course, another great change in the countryside is the rural economy itself. Did you know, that in a countryside which holds 18% of the English population, there are nearly 30% of the country’s vat-able businesses!”
As well as there being more businesses per head of population than there were in the towns, there were more manufacturing businesses than in the towns. Of those in work, there was a higher rate of self-employed: in urban England the figure was 5%, but in rural England the figure was 9% (Cornwall 28%).
“Another statistic that makes me a proud countryman: of those living below the poverty line, in the countryside 22% are self-employed compared to a mere 8% in the towns. In other words, if we have financial problems we get up and try to do something about it.”
So what were the challenges? Broadband and access to training were significant. Planners need to actively promote economic activity in every community, however small, he said. They needed to plan to make rural England as much the engine of growth as towns – and that included joined up thinking on housing and transport as well as broadband.
The growing numbers of old people in rural England were a concern for health services, the transport system and social services. For instance, while Manchester has 13% of its population in that healthwise-very-expensive bracket of the over 65s, East Devon, has 26% over 65. But the health service in E Devon still gets less money than Manchester per head of population!
There was also the problem of rural youth. Without jobs, the number of seriously depressed NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) was growing. One of the problems was youth transport. “You are unlikely to find a job in your village and without transport you can’t get to any other job – there are no busses at that time of day.
“But without a job how can you buy a set of wheels – which is like catch 22. The answer is simple of course: you lend them a set of wheels – usually a moped. The scheme is called Wheels to Work and costs less per week than the otherwise payable job-seekers allowance.
“And after 6 months in work the youth has to buy their own set of wheels and return the moped back to the W2W pool and probably won’t bother the social security services again for the rest of their lives. But can you get civil servants to understand that simple message – it is worse than drawing teeth.
“Which brings me neatly to the greatest challenge as far as Government is concerned, namely rural proofing. Rural proofing is about getting Whitehall civil servants to understand the problems of living in the countryside and how these problems might be affected by Government policy.
“Rural proofing is not about trying to question the actual Government policies, but more the way they are operated.” Prime examples were the closure of schools, the school sports initiative, closure of courts, bedroom tax in small villages and manufacturing policy.
“To be honest, the answer here is for the Cabinet Office to pay for skyping services in every village. There are many examples from around the world where services are delivered by IT, where you have a room in your village, where doctors can talk to patients, courts can talk to witnesses, jobseekers can talk to the jobcentre, businesses can talk to trainers or even their bank managers, schools can even talk to classes. Such general services would cost money but would really boost the ability of all country people to access both Government and private sector services.”
Yet another happy, excellent event!
- Lord Cameron is a landowner and life peer who sits as a crossbench member of the House of Lords and has been co-chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development, alongside Tony Baldry MP, since the 2010 election. Educated at Harrow School and Oxford University, Lord Cameron has managed the family’s Dillington Estate in Somerset since 1971. He is a former president of the Country Land and Business Association, member of the UK Government's Round Table for Sustainable Development and Chair of the Countryside Agency and was the UK Government's rural advocate for England from 2000 to 2004. He was knighted in 2003 and is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and of the Royal Agricultural Societies. Since 2010, he has been President of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists.