What Next?

The new Rural Affairs Secretary faces a portfolio of almost impossible breadth, with responsibility for avian flu, nuclear waste and badgers.  The PM may abolish the department, losing its functions somewhere in Whitehall, or it may survive intact.  Wherever food and environment sit, the rural secretary will quickly be cornered by able civil servants and some of the best organised lobbyists on the planet. 

They will be plied with comprehensive briefings and dazzled with their authors’ command of policy detail. There will be promise of competitive, sustainable, consumer-friendly and efficient food, farming, fisheries and forestry. All these words will blind our minister to the real opportunities.  I was a lobbyist for 10 years and a civil servant for a time too and once worked on the briefing for the incoming administration. 

Today I live and work in rural Derbyshire.  How, then, would I advise the minister for the countryside?

First of all, they should cold-shoulder the London lobby groups. All of them. Have no truck with the NFU, the CLA, the RSPB or the Countryside Alliance.   Lock the door to the cosy Ministerial conference room and throw away the key. Few departments are as influenced by lobbyists as Defra is – the National Farmers Union was formed in 1909 with the express intent to lobby government and has been successful at it ever since. 

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Today, it jostles for the Ministerial ear with the largest conservation organisations in the world who brief with great skill on rural topics.  The new Rural Secretary will have little time, and probably little expertise, to hold back the tide of special pleading.   They should heed Leonardo de Vinci who said that ‘it is easier to resist at the beginning than the end’

Instead, leave London as often as you can and spend time in the countryside Bill Bryson describes as ‘the loveliest, most fetching landscape the world has ever known’. Walk in rural England at dawn with farmers, keepers, birdwatchers and anglers and see the remarkably close connection between their lives and the land. 

Meet the people who are restoring moors, woods and meadows and saving species in the places they love and some call home.  Call in to the farms, village shops, markets, pubs and businesses and talk to the people at the sharp end of the rural economy. Travel all over the amazing English countryside. Marvel at what happens there and listen to all of the perspectives of all the people who you meet.

Inspired by your new-found respect for the British countryside, use every opportunity to promote it overseas.  Ignore mean-minded critics who jeer at a few Ministerial airfares.  The world needs to know how brilliant our food and farming, countryside tourism and rural entrepreneurs are.  We have a longer coastline than New Zealand, more micro-breweries than Germany, and our sparkling wines beat their complacent continental competitors in global competitions.

UK Food exports are worth £18 billion and have huge potential to grow.  Countryside clothing, all-terrain and farm vehicles and rural consultancy exports are worth billions more.  Our environment and utility industries have technological solutions to clean up polluted rivers in India and smog in China.  British land-based universities have been the world's best for a 100 years and today train the world’s next generation of natural resource managers. 

A new Secretary of State should bring more challenge, rigour and external scientific input into rural policy replacing a focus on decisions designed to please stakeholders.  Set up an independent scientific advisory panel composed of expertise from the best research centres in our universities. Put more scientists on the boards of your quangos.  Use more objective science in policies for animal and plant disease, food and nutrition and the safety of farming, fisheries and forestry technologies.

Champion the wildlife that is most under threat, at home and abroad, and be more ambitious about restoring nature to our moors, wetlands, woodlands and farmland, but inject a bit of sense into rule-driven conservation targets and over-engineered protection of common species such as newts and bats.  Most of these targets are finger-in-the-air stuff or based on hopelessly out-of-date data.

Be clearer about what government should do and stop doing the things it shouldn't.  Subsidising food production and paying for its crises, research and marketing have no part in the modern state.   Should government really be funding improvements to pigs and poultry and breeding better wheat for cake and biscuit makers? 

Move any residual support to farming into a ‘big society’ National Farmers Union and encourage it to learn from the National Trust on using volunteers to train apprentices and market apples and pears. 

Start a proper, carefully planned land sell off with forests and state-owned nature reserves first.   Of course, put safeguards on the sale, but it's not beyond your wit to make sure professionally-run and financially-flush conservation organisations end up owning sensitive landscapes and for responsible landowners to look after the rest.

Put the national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national trails, the National Forest and bee conservation and research into big new charities so that they can plan with certainty for their future financial security.

Develop a tactical plan to abolish the Common Agricultural Policy. Most people would be amazed to find that this barmy, anachronistic cash-hungry policy of subsidies lives on 25 years after Margaret Thatcher left office, gobbling up £3bn in public spending every year.

Don't be tempted by clever visions of sustainable this and competitive that delivered to smart Oxford conferences.  Instead, think tactically about practically winning over more EU nations to a rational and cheaper agricultural policy. Have one multi-lingual junior Minister focused entirely on this task.

Square with people on the realities of flood defences.  It doesn't make sense to build endless barrages, hold back the sea in all places and dredge all the rivers. Be honest that these investments are only justified for some parts of the country. 

Elsewhere communities will have to find their own solutions, planners need to be stricter on building in flood plains and more land will be flooded to make more of England wilder and richer in nature.  Focus flood management at the headwaters of rivers where land management can reduce floods at source more cheaply than lowland defences.

There was a time when Defra's programmes were smaller, cheaper, cleverer and more effective. Learn more from history and a bit less from economists.   A progressive Rural Secretary can improve the lives of everyone in Britain. Or they can fall into the trap that many of their predecessors have of winning the battles of words with little real impact in the countryside.  

Jim Dixon used to have some responsibility for some of this, as a lobbyist and as a civil servant but doesn't any more. Today, he is a freelance writer and adviser.

Posted on: May 10th, 2015