A column from FUW Brecon and Radnor Executive Officer Kath Shaw.

Following the devastating news that TATA steel intends closing blast furnaces at Port Talbot, Welsh Economy Minister Vaughan Gething told Radio 4’s Today Programme that “Whilst change is required, this is … about jobs ...about steel being a sovereign asset …about whether this really will reduce emissions if you’ve still got to have blast furnace steel produced in another part of the world…my worry is that we could have a plan today that transfers Welsh workers’ jobs and Welsh emissions to another part of the world…[UK Government] need to recognise that if Levelling Up ever meant anything, it surely cannot mean the loss of 2,500 direct well paid jobs, many more within the wider economy.”

The FUW fully supports these sentiments, and agrees that a better transition must be found for an industry that is of such importance to Port Talbot, Wales and the UK.

But those who have read the Welsh Government’s “Potential economic effects of the Sustainable Farming Scheme” paper will have noticed alarming similarities between the impacts of TATA steel’s proposals and those outlined by the Welsh Government in their latest Sustainable Farming Scheme consultation.

The paper suggests that the Welsh Government’s proposals will result in a reduction in Standard Labour Requirements on farms equivalent to 2,564 jobs. This is a figure which does not include further job losses in the wider economy, which are likely to add significantly to the figure, given that the model only considers around half of the recipients of Welsh farm support, but nevertheless estimates an 11% reduction in livestock numbers - meaning far less need for services such as farm vets and feed merchants.

The report suggests their plans would result in a devastating fall in what are already low average Welsh Farm Business Incomes of between £6,800 and £9,300. For lowland livestock farms, which had the lowest incomes in 2021-22, the modelling suggests this would mean a fall from an average family farm income of £26,500 to just over £20,000.

The report also acknowledges that farm incomes may be reduced even further by the scheme and other Welsh Government rules, stating: “Future elective elements of the SFS will incur further compliance costs, meaning that even if payments match [current payments] the net effect on Farm Business Income will be less. As modelled, farmers are being asked to deliver more (e.g. in terms of environmental delivery) for approximately the same level of support funding…, the scope for dynamic adjustments may be constrained by other policy constraints, such as pollution control regulations.”

Given the predicted reduction in livestock numbers, those keen on increasing arable and vegetable production in Wales might see a way forward, at least for some - but the current Welsh Government proposals scupper any such plans by locking hundreds of thousands of acres of land once used for arable and vegetable production into unploughable ‘habitat’ land.

Yet food - whether vegetable or animal - like steel production, should be treated as what Mr Gething describes as a ‘sovereign asset’. We already import around 50% of the food we consume, and our exposure to food insecurity has become more obvious than ever as a result of the war in Ukraine and the resulting increase in food prices.

Mr Gething rightly highlighted how unacceptable it would be to transfer “…Welsh workers’ jobs and Welsh emissions to another part of the world”. But the current Welsh Government proposals would lead to precisely that. Welsh food production has one of the lowest carbon and environmental footprints in the world, so the Welsh Government’s modelling suggests their proposals will simply transfer jobs and emissions to outside the UK.

The FUW have always taken as read the fact that our Government in Wales will work for the benefit of the entire population, but some of our members are feeling that the sound principles so well expressed by Mr Gething are not applied to rural areas because they tend to have very few Welsh Labour representatives - but surely no one would allow such considerations to influence their decisions when the jobs of working people are in the balance. The FUW is currently considering the Welsh Government’s latest Sustainable Farming Scheme proposals and how they might be improved to prevent the severe economic damage to rural communities that Mr Gething is rightly concerned about in the context of Port Talbot.