This summer, I have been in touch with Support Group officers to set out future plans for our Support Group structure following a review by RBST Trustees of the way in which the network currently operates. The crux of the change is a move to a structure based on regions, rather than counties.

In essence, the intention is to merge two, three or more existing groups into one regional group with one officer team, one bank account and the need for only one set of annual returns to HQ.

Within these regional groups, smaller more local groups can be established which can continue to support RBST under the supervision of the regional group.

This decision reflects the importance RBST places on having representation on the ground and across the whole country which is something that the current, rather patchy, county-based network does not give us as we now have groups in only around a third of the counties. If you are a member outside those counties, and wanting to engage with a group, you in effect get less from RBST than would otherwise be the case.

Regionalisation can deliver genuine nationwide representation with a group covering every part of the country. This will help extend RBST’s reach and influence by having larger, stronger groups able to reflect the interests and concerns of the regions that they represent. This is something we have already seen in Scotland and are starting to see in Northern Ireland, where country-wide RBST Support Groups have been established.

Why is this important? As the UK becomes increasingly decentralised, with Westminster giving many powers relevant to RBST to the devolved governments, RBST needs to have a stronger voice in each country. We are far more likely to have this if we are seen to have our own identity in each.

From an operational point of view, the new structure offers a number of benefits. Support Groups need a minimum number of people to be able to function effectively. They need at least three individuals, with the time, will, and relevant competencies to take on the officer roles. However, in a number of cases, the existing groups struggle to find active members willing to engage to the extent required, so the same, very small pool of people, to their immense credit, endeavour to keep things going as best they can, for as long as they can. Regionalisation would mean fewer members are required to take on officer roles and they would be drawn from a wider pool.

Larger regional groups would also give members the opportunity to extend the range of activities they are able to undertake in their role of representing RBST. Over recent years, we have seen

some groups shrinking to the extent that their activities have to be confined to engagement with one or more local shows. The wider membership clearly wants more from RBST, as do those from the wider farming and land-owning communities that we need to engage with. We have had recent reports from people keeping native breeds on a commercial basis, people to whom RBST needs to be reaching out, who find their local group does very little to meet their needs. This in turn means that RBST can only be seen to be representing part of the greater native breeds community.

On a practical level the new structure will also help reduce administration, both for Support Groups and HQ. Some groups clearly find the administration involved burdensome and so have difficulty finding individuals willing to take it on. We suspect this problem is only going to increase as the banks’ requirements become stricter. As a result, administering and monitoring

the existing groups to ensure compliance with accounting and banking requirements is time consuming for HQ staff, even though compliance has significantly improved in recent years.

What I would like to emphasise is that, in making these changes, we are looking to strengthen, not diminish, RBST’s representation at local level. The increasing use of video conferencing means that geographical considerations are not the obstacle to adopting a regional approach they once were. We want to take advantage of this fact to make it easier for members across the country to engage in our work by giving them easier access to a Support Group network that works for everyone, everywhere in the country.