Since becoming Defra Secretary, I have set out my four key priorities. These are to boost the rural economy, improve the environment and safeguard animal and plant health.
Here is the on the progress we’re making in supporting our hardworking rural communities. The progress we’re making in overcoming the thirteen years of damaging and woefully ignorant indifference the countryside suffered under Labour.
Growing the rural economy
Food and drink sector
As we seek to turn around the rural economy, one of the most important sectors is food and drink. The wider sector supports 3.7 million jobs and contributes nearly £100 billion a year to the UK economy. It’s our largest manufacturing sector.
Last year, UK food and drink exports were worth £18.2 billion. We’ve been working hard to ensure that food and drink businesses are able to capitalise on the growing global demand for high-quality and easily-traceable British food. That’s why we’ve been abroad banging the drum for British products, opening up overseas markets, helping our hardworking producers compete in the global race.
In the last year I’ve been on trade missions to China, Russia and the United States. David Heath, our Farming Minister, has been to Dubai and Thailand. On Sunday I’ll be heading to Germany for the world’s largest food and drink fair.
We’ve already been successful in opening up China to British pork, enabling us to export the fifth quarter for which there is little demand in the UK.
I’m pleased to report that in the first six months of this year we’ve seen a 591 per cent increase in pork exports to China. In fact, the £45 million trade in pork and animal fat has taken our total food exports to China to £102 million, lifting the country into our top 10 biggest international food markets for the first time.
And only a fortnight ago, I was in Russia finalising a trade deal for beef and lamb with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister. The deal is expected to be worth up to £100 million over three years and marks the end of an eighteen year ban on British beef and lamb.
Discerning Russians will now be able to enjoy something that we’ve known all along: that British is best.
It’s not just about promoting exports. We need to make a significant dent in the 22 per cent of food that’s imported but could be produced here. I am hosting a series of meetings with farmers, manufacturers and retailers to make it easier for businesses to grow in the UK market.
Barriers to growth
As well as focusing on the positive, we must not resile from tackling the problems that continue to hold business back.
In contrast to the last Government’s obsessive imposition of red tape, I see my role as getting out of people’s hair.
We start from the position of trusting farmers and are determined to move towards a system of “earned recognition” for those who do the right thing.
That’s why, under this Government, we are removing £13 of compliance costs for every pound added. That’s why, since 2011, there have been 8,000 fewer dairy inspections a year.
I want to see our farmers farming not form-filling.
I believe that nothing will have a more spectacular impact on the rural economy than the roll out of superfast broadband. For the first time, we have a technology that can truly bridge the gap between urban and rural.
The current public investment of £1.2 billion means that 90 per cent of the UK should have superfast coverage by early 2016. This programme will benefit over 4 million rural homes and businesses. Across the country, 100,000 properties are being connected every week.
Our £20 million Rural Community Broadband Fund is also playing a key role in providing opportunities for some communities in the most hard to reach locations to get superfast broadband sooner.
Improving the environment
Alongside growing the rural economy, I am committed to improving the environment. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Having lived in the countryside all my life, I am only too aware of the impact each and every one of us has on the environment and the duty we face to leave it in a better state than we found it.
It was after all Edmund Burke who wrote that we are the “temporary possessors and life-renters” of the earth who must live in a way which doesn’t “leave to those who come after… a ruin instead of a habitation.” If we do, history will quite rightly judge us harshly.
Habitats and Wildlife
That’s why I’m proud to be part of the Government that published the first Natural Environment White Paper in a generation and why, in 2011, we launched our England Biodiversity Strategy. The Strategy sets out our ambition to halt the overall loss of England’s biodiversity by 2020, with the longer term aim of moving from a position of net biodiversity loss to net gain.
We’re determined to improve the habitats which are so important to our wildlife.
England’s first twelve Nature Improvement Areas are beginning activity across hundreds of thousands of acres. These locally-led projects have a share of £7.5 million to restore habitat and encourage more local people to engage with nature. This relatively modest investment by government has already attracted over £40 million of additional resources.
We want to see the Nature Improvement Area approach rolled out more widely and taken forward locally. We’ve also recognised 48 Local Nature Partnerships which provide a framework to work with other local partners, pooling knowledge and taking a strategic view of the local area.
Bees and pollinators are one such form of wildlife that we’re committed to supporting. Rupert de Mauley is leading our efforts on developing a more ambitious and integrated approach to addressing the threats faced by pollinators. These discussions will form the basis of a National Pollinator Strategy, providing a way forward in this important area.
For too long, we have allowed the lazy assumption that the environment and growth are incompatible objectives within the planning system. There is a growing body of international and domestic evidence that, with a bit of innovative thinking, we can have both.
Biodiversity offsetting resolves the long-running conundrum of how to grow the economy at the same time as improving the environment.
It could, for example, see the extension of a dairy, which will result in the loss of a pond, get the go ahead. This would, however, only happen after every other avenue of mitigation had been explored and would be on the basis of a long-term agreement to enhance an existing pond or create a new one elsewhere. Any such offset would need to deliver measurable and sustainable biodiversity gain.
The concept has been around for some time now and on a small island such as ours, with some of the most delicate ecosystems on earth, we must give it serious consideration. That’s why I launched a consultation at the beginning of September.
I’ve seen it working well in Australia. And we can learn from other countries such as Germany, India and the United States. We already have six pilots underway in England but the time has come for us to broaden the discussion, to unleash our ambition.
It’s not just our land-based habitats and wildlife that we must seek to safeguard.
We will shortly be announcing the designation of a number of Marine Conservation Zones, which will complement the 8 per cent of UK waters and 23 per cent of English inshore waters that are already within protected areas. We want to ensure that our seas are sustainable, productive and healthy. A suite of Conservation Zones created in the right place and in the right way will help us achieve this.
We will also be seeking to put an end to the blight that plastic bags cause to both the marine and land environment.
In tandem with Nick Clegg’s announcement of a 5 pence charge on plastic carrier bags, I want to work with industry on setting a standard for biodegradable bags. Any bags complying with this new standard could be given out by retailers for free or at a lower cost, reducing their environmental impact and incentivising a whole new industry.
Economic growth and environmental improvement
The progress we are making in securing reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and investing in flood defences are two examples of where sustainable economic growth and environmental improvement go hand in hand.
Common Fisheries Policy
I would like to pay tribute to Richard Benyon – who is currently out of the country leading a trade delegation – for his steadfast approach to the three years of negotiations that will see significant reform of Europe’s broken Fisheries Policy.
This historic deal reflects much of my 2005 Green Paper and will make a real difference to our hardworking fishing communities.
We can be proud that it’s this Government that has secured:
· A ban on the wasteful practice of discarding perfectly edible fish
· A legally binding commitment to fishing at sustainable levels, and
· Decentralised decision making, allowing Member States to agree the measures appropriate to their fisheries.
Our continued investment in flood defences is also benefiting the economy and the environment. Over the course of this Parliament we will be spending £2.3 billion on protecting households and businesses against flooding. In practical terms, this will see 165,000 properties better protected in 2015 than they were in 2010.
This summer’s Spending Round saw Defra secure a long-term commitment to invest in flood defences at record levels. This commitment will help us reduce the risk of flooding to at least 300,000 households between April 2015 and March 2021.
It’s this determination to tackle the human and environmental blight of flooding that helped us secure an interim agreement with the Association of British Insurers on flood insurance.
A deal which will help with the cost of living, enabling hardworking people to access insurance at reasonable prices.
A deal which the previous Government did nothing to secure in its last two years in office.
Once again, it’s this Government which is clearing up the mess left behind by Labour.
The health of our animals and the important role they play in both our economy and environment must be at the heart of everything Defra does.
Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK. The importance of the situation for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overstated.
TB is a matter on which, over many years, there has been a great deal of agreement between the political parties. This was certainly the case in the 1960s and 1970s when the combination of political consensus and concerted action meant that we had the disease effectively beaten. In 1972 only 0.01 per cent of cattle tested as infected.
I very much regret that as this issue has become politicised our grip on this disease has weakened.
Bovine TB has now spread extensively through the West of England and Wales. The number of new cases is doubling every nine years. In the last decade we have slaughtered 305,000 cattle across Great Britain. In 2012 in England alone, TB led to the slaughter of 28,000 cattle at a cost to the taxpayer of nearly £100 million. It is estimated that this will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.
The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex. The Government is committed to using all of the tools at its disposal and continuing to develop new ones as a package of measures to tackle the disease. As we must always remember, this is a zoonosis.
Culling is just one element of our broader strategy to eradicate TB over 25 years. We will continue to strengthen cattle movement controls, increase our surveillance testing regime and invest in research into badger and cattle vaccines.
We must, however, not lose sight of how other countries have tackled the disease. The experience of Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and the United States shows that TB in cattle cannot be controlled without also controlling the disease in wildlife reservoirs.
The Republic of Ireland, where badgers are now culled, has seen TB infection levels fall by more than 45 per cent since 2000. They are slaughtering close to half the cattle they needed to 10 years ago.
The pilot culls are now underway in the TB hotspots of Gloucestershire and Somerset. I would like to pay tribute to the local farmers and landowners who are undertaking the cull, often in difficult terrain and weather, and often in the face of intimidation by a small minority who are determined to stop this disease control policy.
However difficult the choices ahead, we must not repeat Labour’s failed policy of doing nothing.
A policy they continue to promulgate today.
A policy which, between 1998 and 2010, saw the number of herd breakdowns in Great Britain triple and the number of cattle slaughtered increase sixfold.
So to be absolutely clear: this Government will not walk away from the tough decisions that are required to eradicate this devastating disease.
For too long, plant health has been seen as the poor relation of animal health. I’m determined to change that.
The arrival of ash dieback on our shores last year served as the ultimate wake up call. It reminded us of the centrality of plants to our nation’s economy, landscape and history.
In response, I asked our Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, to convene an Independent Taskforce on Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity to look at our strategic approach to plant health.
The Taskforce published its recommendations in May and work on its central recommendation of a UK Plant Health Risk Register is well underway. In fact, the Risk Register will be completed shortly and will form the foundation for all our future efforts in this area.
That’s not to say we can take our eye off the ball. To tackle tree disease we have already:
· Introduced tighter controls on the import of oak, ash and plane trees
· Allocated £8 million for research into diseases that could affect our trees, and
· Planted 150,000 ash saplings to monitor them for genetic resistance to Chalara.
I’m also keen that we make use of our diplomatic network and ties to ensure that we have access to the most up to date information and intelligence. In Russia, I secured agreement for six monthly official-level and annual ministerial meetings so that we can benefit from sharing knowledge and research
And as soon as Parliament returns I will be asking my officials to lay an Order which will ban the import of plane and sweet chestnut trees from areas where there is a risk of disease and require notification for import of pines.
This will ensure that restrictions are in place well in advance of the new planting season, getting ourselves on the front foot and helping protect our trees from diseases which are already evident elsewhere.
To conclude, we are making real progress in putting in place the foundations that are necessary for a living, working countryside. A countryside with thriving businesses, healthy habitats and abundant wildlife.
The countryside is not something that can be preserved in aspic nor would we wish it to be. It is something of which we are custodians. We must seek, as practical environmentalists, to improve our habitats and ecosystems, to leave them in a better condition than we found them.
I am determined to grow the rural economy while improving the natural environment. The two are not mutually exclusive. They are completely interdependent.