Strengthening rural Britain’s voice at the heart of Westminster

William Worsley is ready to implement change. Jack Davies meets the new man at the helm of the Country Land and Business Association.

As the new president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Yorkshire farmer William Worsley is keen to hit the ground running and give rural Britain a strong voice in the corridors of Westminster.

His rise to the top of the organisation marks the pinnacle of some 20 years in the CLA as he worked his way up the ranks of his local branch and through the national hierarchy. It is something he is immensely proud of.

William’s great grandfather was one of the founding members when the CLA was formed in 1907.

But, by his own admission, William, 53, was initially a little less keen to follow suit - until he realised the issues being addressed were those which directly affected him as a farmer.

“When I took over the farm I was encouraged to join the branch committee,” he says.

“I eventually went kicking and screaming and realised these meetings were very valuable to me as a farmer and as a businessman.”

That history is something which has stuck with him, and his own experiences on his farm estate at Hovingham Hall, North Yorkshire, provides further inspiration. The organisation sets out to launch a young CLA membership in 2010 and immerse itself in the debate surrounding succession.

“It is aimed at people who will be taking on the farms and the estates of the future,” he says. “Succession planning is a huge issue and it is vitally important we engage with that and encourage young people into the industry.

“I was in a lucky position that my father stepped aside when I was relatively young, so I had an opportunity to grasp the business and do things with it,

but for a lot of people getting them round the table to even begin the discussion is a hard thing to do.”

Engaging with young farmers and the landowners of the future is just one of his goals as he takes on the mantle, and he is keen to change the public perception of the CLA.

He agrees there is room to improve the CLA’s reputation and is keen to stress the work it does goes far beyond protecting the interests of big landowners. It has a vitally important role to play in the wider debates surrounding farming and the rural economy, he says.

Strong arguments

Tackling issues such as bovine TB, climate change and CAP reform head-on, the CLA is at the heart of the debate. However, it is often overlooked by the public as it handles matters behind closed doors, preferring to keep out of the media spotlight.

“Others might get good headlines, but what is important is having a good argument,” he says. “That is the basis of any lobbying and too many groups forget that.

“The success of our lobbying is in the strength of the debate. Ministers want to listen and they want your input. They might not always agree with you, but it is important we get our views across.

“We are not the sort of organisation that will fire off press statements and create a storm in the media.

“We want to have a debate in Whitehall and make sure what we are saying is backed up by sound arguments because only then will we be able to affect change.”

One of its most influential campaigns in recent years has been its push to get broadband internet access into rural areas. William is keen to take the lobbying to the next stage and make some headway during his time as president.

Vital service

“The primary aim has to be to get broadband to areas which are not getting it,” he says.

“It is absolutely vital to the rural economy and to those people who live and work in rural areas.

“It is not just about work - the way we socialise has changed dramatically with the internet and rural communities need to be part of that.

“My children use Facebook and if they can’t get on to that and keep in touch with their friends, they are not happy.

“Obviously it is not just about getting Facebook into houses, but it is just one example of how we use the internet to stay in touch and rural communities can feel very cut off from that.”

His grasp of social media trends is refreshing, but he fully appreciates the vital part broadband has to play in sustaining rural communities and the businesses based there.

“If you are going to keep people working in rural villages, you need to have broadband there.

“It sustains that village and is a vital part of the economy; without it you will just find more people moving into urban areas where they can work properly.

“Where farmers are concerned, Defra is trying to do more of its communication on the internet and a lot of interaction is done that way, so it is vital this is rolled out to everyone.”

This is a man who truly loves the British countryside and wants to see it thrive with a viable agricultural base at its heart.

With a General Election looming, there is a real opportunity for William and his colleagues at the CLA to get their voices heard in Whitehall, and that is something he is keen to take full advantage of.

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