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Summer of change for rural Wales



walescountrysideTHE RECENT unplanned removal of the Minister for Natural Resources and the subsequent carve-up of ministerial positions again makes it difficult to see exactly who will be in charge when it comes to important agricultural and rural decisions – especially without a dedicated minister at the top table. These changes come against a backdrop of difficult decisions still to be made or enacted. What will the new Minister do about CAP payments at a time when farmers’ incomes have dropped by 44%? How will she deal with her predecessor’s proposals to introduce a table valuation scheme for bovine TB compensation? What discussions will she have with DEFRA – who have a full Minister at the Cabinet for agricultural issues – about the red meat levy that deprives our farming sector of £1m per year? And what will she be doing about the supermarkets and their grip on the sector? It is a big role, very important to the Welsh economy, and one deserving of a full Welsh cabinet post. There is also a great deal of work to be done at a European level, with Italy now taking on the Presidency of the European Council for the second half of 2014. Although CAP negotiations and the EU budget are mapped out until 2020, there are still very important agricultural negotiations taking place. Amongst the most important, here are 5 issues that I’ll be keeping an eye on during the next few months. Firstly, the revision of rules governing the organic sector. Next is an overhaul of the school food schemes (distribution of fruit, vegetables & fresh milk among schoolgoing children) Then, of course, there’s the review of the EU Animal & Plant Health Package. The European Parliament took its position on the Animal health element but failed to do so with regards to the seeds regulation. Many of you contacted me, and indeed I wrote about this law back in February. These proposals have wide-ranging implications on the potential of ordinary growers to have access to the seeds that they need. Also of interest are the on-going TTIP free-trade negotiations between the EU-US. The lack of transparency with regards to this agreement is undemocratic and undoubtedly detrimental for the agricultural industry in Wales. Finally, the talks on the cultivation of genetically modified crops at member state level. Regular readers of this column again will know of my opposition to GMOs and to the European approach to this subject, and it is again something on which I expect the new Deputy Agricultural Minister to make clear her opposition. As always, I will keep a close eye on proceedings and stand up for Wales at all times, but it falls on the Welsh Government to fight to make sure that their voices are heard around the negotiating table. While it is the UK government that hold competency for negotiating on EU matters, on devolved issues, the Welsh government must also engage. I urge the new Welsh government ministers to stand up for Wales during negotiations.

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First Minister speaks of need to win back trust of Welsh farmers



THE FIRST Minister accepted the need to win back farmers’ trust as he was scrutinised about Welsh Government support for rural Wales.

Vaughan Gething told a scrutiny committee the relationship with farmers has improved significantly in the months since widespread protests against subsidy reforms.

In May, the Welsh Government postponed the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) until 2026 after a consultation received more than 12,000 responses.

Mr Gething raised the importance of taking a step back and listening but he stressed the need for compromise, adding: “You can’t please everyone.”

He said: “Farmers were the first group … I met when I first became the First Minister to try to reset our relationship – to recognise that we need to have a further conversation.”

Llyr Gruffydd, Plaid Cymru’s shadow rural affairs secretary, raised the farming sector’s calls for the SFS budget to increase by more than £500m due to inflation.

The First Minister replied: “We’re not going to be able to put right the last 14 years in the next 14 weeks – and I think that’s a wholly unrealistic demand.”

Mr Gething told the committee: “There is a need for honesty about the scale of the hole that has been inherited by the new UK Government.”

He said farming got the rough end of Brexit, with the sector “sold out” in trade deals.

Mr Gething stressed the issue will not be resolved in the first Labour UK budget, warning the UK’s books are “in a worse state than the public were told”.

“There’s an even bigger hole than we thought,” said the former lawyer and trade union representative. “You can’t click your fingers and wish that away.”

Recalling Labour’s 1997 landslide, Wales’ First Minister cautioned that it took two years to unlock significant investment “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a similar picture”.

Mr Gruffydd raised concerns about water quality regulations, which include slurry storage requirements coming into force on August 1.

He warned some farmers are “stuck in the planning system” and may not be able to meet the regulations through no fault of their own.

Mr Gething assured the North Wales MS that discussions will be held with regulators and enforcement authorities about the practicalities.

Turning to transport, Labour’s John Griffiths raised comments from Stuart Cole, a professor of transport economics, who has warned rural Wales has “lost out” on spending.

Mr Gething said the Welsh Government took over responsibility for the core valleys lines which became a significant financial commitment, skewing spending figures.

Pressed about cuts to rail in some rural areas in Transport for Wales’ timetable review, Mr Gething pointed out that an average of six passengers used one Heart of Wales line route.

“You can run a flexi-bus service, you can’t run a flexi-rail service,” he said.

The First Minister told the meeting forthcoming bus reforms, which would re-regulate the industry and introduce a franchising system, will be a real benefit to rural Wales.

On roads policy, Mr Gething described the former road-building programme as unaffordable, saying a new approach is needed in light of the climate and nature emergency.

David Rees, the Senedd’s deputy speaker or Diprwy Lywydd, who chairs the committee, raised suggestions that the south Wales metro has been too dominant.

Mr Gething said a better service in south Wales should give people confidence that it can be done in other parts of the country as well.

But he cautioned: “As ever, I can’t give you a definitive timeframe even though I know everyone would like me to – that’s about the balance of being honest and ambitious.”

Quizzed about the rural economy by Labour’s Jack Sargeant and the Conservatives’ Mark Isherwood, Mr Gething described digital connectivity as an essential enabler.

He pointed to Welsh Government investment in digital infrastructure despite responsibility being reserved to Westminster.

Turning to health, Russell George raised long-standing concerns about the recruitment and retention of dentists, doctors and other health professionals in rural Wales.

The Tory MS for Montgomeryshire criticised proposals to close Welshpool and Caernarfon air ambulance bases, which will be replaced by a new site in north Wales in 2025.

Pointing out that tens of thousands of people signed petitions and expressed “deep, deep concern”, Mr George asked why the Welsh Government did not step in.

Mr Gething said compelling evidence suggests the new model will lead to a better service for more people as he rejected calls to “override” clinician-led decisions.

“This isn’t about money,” he told committee members. “This is about what is the appropriate model to ensure people have the best possible service.”

Labour backbencher Joyce Watson raised the importance of rural schools to communities such as those in her Mid and West Wales region.

Mr Gething said the Welsh Government strengthened the school organisation code in 2018 to include a presumption against closure and a higher test for councils.

He told the meeting at Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets on July 12 that only one proposal to close a rural school – on Ynys Mon – is currently being taken forward.

“I grew up in a rural part of the world,” he said. “Where you have a primary school, in particular, it makes a really big difference … and a sense of place as well.”

Asked about access to school transport, Mr Gething pledged to take forward the recommendations of a review on learner travel.

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Conservatives challenge Welsh Government over farming scheme



THE WELSH CONSERVATIVES have announced a debate in the Senedd, scheduled for July 17, 2024, focusing on the importance of Welsh farming and challenging the Welsh Labour Government’s approach to agricultural policy. The debate comes in the wake of ongoing concerns over the proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) and its impact on the farming community.

The motion, brought forward by the Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs, James Evans MS, aims to highlight the critical role of farming in Wales. Evans criticised the Welsh Labour Government’s handling of agricultural issues, stating that the current SFS does not adequately support farmers and overlooks the essential contributions of the farming sector to the Welsh economy and rural communities.

“Labour continues to take our farmers for granted,” Evans said. “Unlike Labour, the Welsh Conservatives would make sure we have a Sustainable Farming Scheme that works for our farmers, not against them, safeguarding the future of our crucial industry.”

The motion to be debated reads:

  1. Celebration of Economic Contribution: The Senedd is urged to celebrate the valuable economic contribution of Welsh farming to the economy.
  2. Support for Rural Events: The motion acknowledges the benefits of events like the Royal Welsh Show and the National Eisteddfod in supporting rural communities and promoting Welsh culture and language.
  3. Opposition to Current SFS: It supports the strong opposition within the agricultural community against the current SFS, reinforcing the message “no farmers, no food.”
  4. Call for Government Action:
  • Ensure the new SFS has the support of the farming community, with food security and environmental protection at its core.
  • Work with the UK Government to expand on its minimal mention of farming in the general election manifesto and develop a comprehensive plan for farming across the UK.

The Welsh Labour Government has faced significant backlash over the SFS, particularly the requirements for farms to have at least 10% tree cover and 10% of land managed as semi-natural habitats. Farmers argue that these measures could take substantial portions of their land out of production, jeopardising their livelihoods.

Huw Irranca-Davies, Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, has acknowledged these concerns and announced revisions to the SFS. The revised scheme, set to commence in 2026 with a preparatory phase in 2025, aims to balance environmental sustainability with economic viability. However, the Welsh Conservatives argue that more needs to be done to ensure the scheme truly supports farmers.

The upcoming debate is expected to be a crucial platform for discussing these issues and pushing for a more farmer-friendly approach to agricultural policy in Wales.

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Welsh Government revises Sustainable Farming Scheme after protests



WELSH Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Huw Irranca-Davies, has announced that the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) will commence in 2026, following a preparatory phase in 2025. This phase is intended to provide advice and support to farmers in advance of the scheme’s full implementation.

The SFS, which aims to create a sustainable agricultural sector in Wales, has been the subject of intense debate and protests from the farming community. Protests have been held across Wales, with significant demonstrations in March and April 2024. Farmers have raised concerns over the feasibility and financial implications of the scheme, particularly the requirements for farms to have at least 10% tree cover and 10% of land managed as semi-natural habitats. Many fear that these rules could take up to 20% of their land out of production, impacting their livelihoods.

In response to these concerns, Irranca-Davies published the Welsh Government’s revised plan on July 11, 2024. The consultation titled ‘Sustainable Farming Scheme: Keeping Farmers Farming’ received extensive feedback, leading to several key revisions:

  1. Revised Tree Cover Requirements: The 10% tree cover requirement has been clarified to apply only to suitable land, excluding areas unfit for planting or beyond a farmer’s control. This adjustment aims to reduce the burden on farmers while still promoting environmental benefits.
  2. Extended Timeline: The full implementation of the SFS is now scheduled for 2026, with a preparatory phase in 2025. This phase will offer advice and support to farmers to help them transition to the new scheme.
  3. Collaborative Development: The Welsh Government has established a Ministerial Roundtable to further engage with the farming community and other stakeholders. This forum will help shape the final design and implementation of the SFS, ensuring that it reflects the needs and concerns of all parties involved.
  4. Support and Stability Payments: During the transition period, farmers will receive Stability Payments to maintain their income levels. This measure is intended to mitigate financial instability as they adapt to the new requirements.
  5. Ongoing Consultation: The Carbon Sequestration Evidence Panel will continue to review and consider alternative proposals to enhance carbon sequestration within the scheme. The Government will provide periodic updates on the progress of these consultations throughout the year.

Irranca-Davies acknowledged the concerns raised by farmers, stating, “I know that this has been an unsettling time for many farmers and their families. We will continue to work at pace to finalise the scheme so that we can provide certainty about future support as soon as possible. By working together, we can ensure a sustainable agriculture industry in Wales for generations to come.”

Environmental groups such as RSPB Cymru and the Nature Friendly Farming Network support the scheme, emphasising the necessity of sustainable practices in the face of climate change. They argue that the revised scheme balances environmental stewardship with agricultural productivity.

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