By Debbie James

There are fears that initiatives at the crux of Welsh agriculture, including the bovine TB eradication programme and the delivery of European farm support payments, will be weakened by the Welsh Government’s decision to slash nearly £37 million from its budget for agriculture, environment and rural affairs.

Most Welsh Government departments face a real terms percentage squeeze to their funding but the cut of 15.2 per cent to the Environment and Rural Affairs’ existing budget of £243 million is the largest.

This department funds a wide range of activities including the administration of CAP payments, developing and marketing Welsh food and drink and delivering the Animal Health and Welfare strategy.

It also pays for the management and delivery of TB eradication and other endemic diseases, protecting plant health and developing GM policies.

The Welsh Government says the new two-stage budget was agreed by the National Assembly following changes to the way the budget is constructed after the devolution of tax and borrowing powers.

But CLA Cymru director Rebecca Williams said how the reduced budget would be allocated to meet the increased challenges faced by rural communities would be a matter of “intense scrutiny.”

“Wales is a rural country. We need to understand the impact this cut will have on the rural communities that make up one third of the population of the country.’’

Miss Williams described the current period as a critical one for the rural economy, with the sector’s capacity to plan severely affected by the multiple uncertainties arising from Brexit.

The future of farm-support, the outcome of trade deals with the EU and other markets, and the impact of potential changes in regulation, must all be taken into account, she insisted.

“This is a time when confidence needs to be built up in rural communities. Our own research shows that the £1.3 billion invested annually by rural landowners in Wales is vulnerable to the impact of low confidence in the rural economy. Our estimate of growth in investment to potential annuals levels of £1.8bn by 2020 are at risk.’’

At £243 million, the environment and rural affairs budget is the smallest of the Welsh Government’s seven departments – more than £20m smaller than the Welsh Government’s budget for central services and administration.

“The cut of 15.2 per cent is the largest,’’ said Miss Williams. “We must understand the impact of this on the rural economy and we must understand, in the light of this, what the priorities of the Welsh Government really are, both in terms of national priorities – and priority initiatives within the slashed environment and rural affairs budget.’’

The total Welsh Government budget – with infrastructure and day-to-day spending combined – is £15.3bn for 2018/19.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said the outline budget was published on October 3, detailing the building blocks of the Welsh Government’s budget – where the money comes from and how it will be allocated to departmental main expenditure groups, together with tax and borrowing proposals.

“The detailed departmental spending plans will be published on October 24,’’ she said.