By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
The devastating impact of the coronavirus on farmers has been laid bare as a local authority pledges to support the revival of the rural economy.
Kent County Council’s (KCC) scrutiny committee met yesterday (January 22) and agreed to press the government and County Hall chiefs to provide urgent help to the agricultural sector.
A KCC-led inquiry, carried out in November, found Kent rural communities had been “significantly” impacted by the pandemic, threatening the survival of some businesses.
Since last March, they have faced staff shortages, a decline in tourism and supply chain losses because of supermarket shutdowns, with some dairy farmers having financial payments from shops delayed by up to four months.
One Kent farmer lost up to 40% of his trade overnight when the hospitality sector was forced to shut its doors during the first UK-wide lockdown.
At the virtual meeting, Folkestone and Hythe county councillor Rory Love (Con) told the panel of 13 councillors: “The issue is that if you take away the paninis and the burgers, the salad leaves that go into them suddenly have no market.
“That has a knock-on effect, right through the supply chain to the salad growers in Kent.”
KCC’s inquiry revealed the county’s farming sector faces a shortfall of 18,000 rural workers. Staff shortages have worsened as Covid restrictions, such as travel bans, make it more difficult for people to come to the UK.
In 2018, Theresa May’s government piloted a scheme allowing fruit and vegetable farmers to employ migrant workers for six months, but this was capped at a maximum of 10,000 people for the whole of the UK last February.
KCC’s economic development cabinet member, Cllr Mike Whiting (Con), has been asked to write to the Home Office to secure “sufficient” labour for the county, by expanding the government’s Seasonal Workers pilot scheme.
Swale county councillor John Wright (Con) told the panel: “This inquiry brought out a lot of pain that rural businesses are going through during the pandemic and it is up to us to respond and react to help them.”
A total of 11 recommendations have been made to County Hall’s Conservative executives to help rebuild the sector in a “sustainable” and “environmentally-friendly” manner.
Under the plans, a Kent rural board could be re-established, acting as a KCC lobbying body to try and change government laws and secure financial aid.
Other recommendations include protecting “potentially productive” farming land against housing development and providing mental health counselling for socially-isolated farmers.
Malling Rural East county councillor Matthew Balfour (Con), former cabinet member for environment, said: “This throws up the fact that KCC as an organisation has lost its way in representing and looking after the rural economy.”
Meanwhile, KCC’s main opposition leader, Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem), called for a “land value tax” to be introduced to discourage the “destruction” of farming land by housing developers.
A final decision on whether to press ahead with the recommendations will be made by KCC’s cabinet over the next two months.