What does the EU referendum really mean for the future of the rural economy? We take a closer look at the rural economies and priorities for exiting the EU in each of the UK's devolved nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Taking a quick look at the food, feed and drink sectors in 2015, where the value of exports from the UK was £18 billion and the value of UK imports for the same category was £38.5 billion leaving an agri-food trade gap of £20.5 billion, provides a clear message that following Brexit, the UK needs resilient and sustainable agricultural and horticultural sectors both to contribute to affordable food self-sufficiency and to expand our export base.

Research by Savills has shown that changes to trade agreements could potentially be far more significant to the agricultural sector than changes to existing agricultural support, however, what needs to be borne in mind is that our agricultural sector is currently heavily reliant on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support. For that sector, the Government pledge to maintain CAP payments until 2020 has added some welcome certainty, albeit only for the short term.

The seven priorities are:

  • Agriculture and horticulture
  • Ecosystem Services
  • Education, knowledge and technology
  • Land use
  • Natural resources and the environment
  • Rural businesses
  • Trade

Rural business sustainability

While some are of the belief that leaving the EU gives the UK an opportunity to develop a system that benefits the rural economy as a whole, what is not up for debate is that UK farms of all sizes will need to strive for efficiency and profitability post-Brexit.

Beyond agriculture there is also an array of ecosystem services opportunities for land managers, which can contribute to sustainable rural businesses and to the public good. These include, but are not limited to, the enhancing of biodiversity, the prevention and alleviation of flooding, the sequestering of carbon and the management of the countryside and access to it by the wider public.

The need to evolve

The nature of rural land-based businesses also continues to evolve. Looking at rural estates alone gives a clear picture of the changes over time. The percentage of total estate income from agriculture was 48.7% in 2000, but in 2016 it fell to 36.9%. Estate income from residential, commercial and leisure activities all rose over the same time frame. With the inevitable restructuring of UK agriculture ahead, there will be a need to support all rural business activities beyond primary agricultural production.

Quite uniquely, domestic forestry benefitted from the uncertainty and the consequential weakening of the GBP after the referendum vote as imported timber became more expensive. Being outside the EU could see UK public sector contracts placing a preference upon the use of UK timber – ensuring demand is maintained, however continued uncertainty and a reduction in grant support could lead to a continued reduction in new woodland planting.

To ensure the resilience and growth of our rural economy and its myriad of business sectors more certainty and consideration is needed beyond farming payments. RICS formed a Rural Brexit Group consisting of members from the Rural Professional Group Board, Countryside Policy Panel and other RICS rural professionals, to devise UK rural priorities for leaving the EU.

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