£10m fund to help flood-hit farmers

Farming Minister George Eustice has revealed more details of a £10 million fund which will open later this week to help flood-hit farmers.

A report shows UK agriculture's contribution to the economy increased by 54% between 2007 and 2012
A report shows UK agriculture's contribution to the economy increased by 54% between 2007 and 2012

In a speech to the National Farmers' Union (NFU) Conference in Birmingham today, Mr Eustice said: "We have suffered the wettest winter for 250 years and the impact has led to thousands of properties being flooded and many families' lives being turned upside down.

"As the Prime Minister has said, we understand the hardship and disruption this causes families and businesses and we will do everything in our power to help the recovery operation now under way."

Mr Eustice said the £10 million Farming Recovery Fund, which will open on Friday, would assist with four key areas of recovery and offer support with uninsured losses to help get farms back into production again.

He said it would help with restoring grassland and productive arable and horticultural land. This would help to restore vehicle access to fields and improve field drainage.

Under the scheme, all farmers affected by the flooding will be able to apply for emergency funding of up to £5,000, covering up to 100% of their business costs.

This will ensure that they can continue growing crops and grazing livestock.

A second part of the fund will be reserved to help those farms which continue to be affected but where it is too soon to be able to assess the full extent of the damage, Mr Eustice told the conference.

"Once we have a better picture of the scale of the damage we will reassess the upper limit for grants and we will keep the scheme under constant review so that it remains flexible and is targeted at those in greatest need," he said.

Additionally, the £10 million Farming and Forestry Improvement Scheme will offer eligible farmers grants of up to £35,000 on schemes designed to make businesses more resilient, he said.

"We want to help farmers affected by flooding and the severe weather to get their businesses back on track as soon as possible. The new £10 million Farming Recovery Fund has been set up to help farmers directly affected meet short-term costs as the flood waters recede," the minister told the conference.

Opening the conference at the ICC today, outgoing NFU president Peter Kendall, said: "Flood management is incredibly complex. I would love to stand here and say that's all about dredging, river maintenance or drainage. But we know it isn't that simple.

"Routine dredging has got to be part of the answer for the Somerset Levels. But what's needed on the Levels may be different from what's needed in the Thames Valley or Cumbria - devastated in 2009 - or in North West Wales where there are 1,000 acres awash with saltwater, or along the coast of Lincolnshire - 600 acres of grade one land inundated last December.

"We have to increase budgets and review the balance between capital works and routine maintenance."

Mr Kendall told the conference that the Government needed to find ways to remove red rape around landowners carrying out their own maintenance - such as keeping vegetation cut back and clearing silt from rivers.

Welcoming river maintenance pilots that were launched last October, Mr Kendall said: "Surely that's now got to happen on a massive scale across the country".

He told the conference that a "major rethink" was needed in how flood defence spending was allocated.

Mr Kendall said: "58% of our most productive land sits below the 5m contour line and it is at risk from flooding. Policy makers simply have to put higher value on it.

"Yes, farmland can and should in extreme circumstances act as a temporary buffer for water to protect people's lives and homes, but it shouldn't be viewed as a long-term storage facility. It's primary job is to feed this country.

"We don't just need a major rethink. We must stop sacrificing our productive farmland to crazy, rampant and thoughtless urbanisation.

"That won't be easy. It will take planning. It will take investment. It will probably take further legislation. It will certainly need a radically different approach when it comes to house building and other development.

"We have to break the cycle of development followed by massive capital works carried out in isolation to protect that development at the expense of farmland elsewhere.

Speaking to the media after his speech, Mr Kendall said: "I understand the constraints of the Government and the way the Treasury seems to bear down on all Government departments with enormous ferocity.

"What farmers want to see now is we use the moment in the spotlight with flooding to make a case for better funding.

"Now must be the chance to go and say 'look at the damage'."

Later in his speech, Mr Eustice said British food and drink exports grew to nearly £19 million in 2013.

"The world's population is growing. Tastes are changing and we want British agriculture to be at the forefront of supplying these new markets," Mr Eustice told the conference.

He said 112 new export markets opened up last year, leading to an increase of nearly £180 million in the food and drink sector to non-EU markets.

Concluding his speech, he said: "The Government backs the business of British farming. You are at the heart of our long-term economic plan.

"We are working with the sector to increase resilience. We are creating the right environment for businesses to grow and flourish. We are cutting red tape and farm inspections.

"We are encouraging all forms of innovation in agriculture. We are making significant progress in safeguarding our plant and animal health. Together we are growing the rural economy.

"We cannot do this without you. We need to work to ensure that the changes we make are the right ones and are implemented in the right way."

His speech on the first day of the conference comes as new research suggests that Britain's farming sector has defied the recession in recent years by contributing an additional £8.6 billion to the UK economy.

The report, entitled Backing The Business Of British Farming, shows UK agriculture's contribution to the economy increased by 54% between 2007 and 2012.

It also claims that food and drink is now the UK's fourth largest export sector, having grown by 2.5% in the first half of 2013.

The report found that agriculture contributed an additional £8.6 billion more to the UK economy between 2008 and 2012 than it did from 2003 to 2007.