Rural areas need EU funding – but not from the farmers' pot
St Ives MP Andrew George argued last week that EU funding through the Common Agricultural Policy should be spread more widely. Paul Millard of the CLA disagrees.
Andrew George's comments about funding public transport for young people via the Common Agricultural Policy raises a really important issue about access to education and training in rural areas – but his thinking on how it should be funded is misdirected.
He is absolutely right to highlight the physical barriers that stand in the way of young people gaining access to comparable education and training as their urban counterparts – problems of sparsity, poor availability, and cost, of public transport, slow, or no, broadband – all present specific obstacles for people living in rural communities.
The CLA supports that aim of breaking down these barriers and allowing our rural dwelling youngsters equivalent access to higher education and training as the city dwelling cousins get and has campaigned for social inclusion as part of the three legged stool or genuinely sustainable communities in the countryside.
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We go further, because we believe that people working in rural areas should have the benefit of on-the-job further skills training. Again, this is something which is far easier to offer in more populated areas where colleges and public transport abound. To provide that kind of training in the context of a rural-based business would largely have to be delivered via the web – and that will require ready access to superfast broadband.
We know that the current roll-out of broadband is running behind time and BT is now looking to deliver superfast broadband to 90 per cent of properties by the end of 2015 – but it is important to remember that the remaining ten percent of properties which will not get access to superfast broadband is a figure based on the total number of properties, both rural and urban, while the likelihood is that the vast majority of the properties that will end up without superfast broadband will all be in rural areas, so the true percentage figure will be much higher than ten.
So we agree with Mr George that there is a skills and training shortfall and the simple access to higher education is loaded against people living in rural communities, however, we do have a different view of how to meet the cost.
Under the new programme of EU funding, the European Social Fund is there specifically to deal with issues of social exclusion – which is precisely what this problem boils down to. Mr George allows himself to be drawn down the farming bashing route, affirming that wealthy farmers do not need to benefit from CAP support mechanisms – but that is choosing to ignore the real structure and purpose of the Common Agricultural Policy.
The CAP exists to ensure that we, and the rest of the EU, have a productive and competitive agricultural industry capable of producing sufficient food to feed, not only our own citizens, but also people in the wider world through a competitive food export sector. Its current reform package also takes note of the contribution agricultural makes to our natural environment and will seek to pick up the places where the market itself fails to pay for the environmental goods farmers and landowners provide – an overall package of food and environmental security.
Mr George talks of capping payments to larger landowners and asserts that all 25 member states believe that spending on CAP should be cut. The first is largely a political red herring – because there is clearly a case that the bigger the farm, the higher the costs – but the why and wherefore of the distribution of CAP payments is a different and separate argument. The second assertion that all countries believe CAP should be cut is not quite accurate – they might sign up to the deal, but they don't all agree with it.
We say the money from the European Social Fund should be used to ensure that proper access to training is available to everybody in the countryside and particularly to young people. Whether ensuring the rural businesses can have access to training via the web – that is, picking up the cost of superfast broadband where the main provider will not deliver it – can also be covered by the European Social Fund should, perhaps be the subject of debate.
But within all this, there is another possibility. In Devon, Somerset and Cornwall we are currently discussing the best way to spend just over 700 million euros shortly to become available from the region through the European Growth programme – so there is money available.