Broadband will 'prove boost to rural economy'
A series of objectives was outlined by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson when he spoke to 80 NFU members in Tiverton.
In a broad-based speech Mr Paterson spoke of his vision of where Defra should be going over the next few years.
The MP for North Shropshire – who made a good impression on the delegates that attended, from Cornwall to Gloucestershire – said 90% of Defra's business involved EU legislation of one sort or another.
Clearly concerned about Treasury constraints, he referred to the nation's borrowing on several occasions during his 75-minute session, which included a question-and-answer slot. "In today's climate we are borrowing £400,000 every minute . . . so it's vital we focus on what Defra does," he said.
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Top of his wish list was growth of the rural economy, and that involved the Government putting £1.5 billion in extending and upgrading broadband coverage throughout rural England, he said. It would fundamentally help the development of industries in country areas – a bigger move, in its time, than the coming of the railways and the canals had been in their's.
"The rural mobile phone service is completely dire," he said. "The coverage is pathetic. How can people work in the countryside if they are unable to communicate with people who may be working abroad?"
Improvement of flood defences was a major objective, he said. The real value of them had been seen very recently, and the pay-back on investment was calculated at eight to one. "Then there's the issue of getting out of your hair," he told his audience, to applause.
"Time and again over-regulation comes up in people's concerns. But the truth is that the vast majority of farmers are responsible and try to conduct their businesses through the rules."
There would be 12,000 fewer dairy inspections this year, thus lifting the burden to some extent, and the Macdonald Report into cutting red tape had made a great many good recommendations.
"This is a key to real economic growth," said Mr Paterson.
On exports, the nation's agriculture was "massively behind" on taking advantage of the opportunities that were open to it. France, Denmark, Ireland and Holland were forging ahead.
He spoke about a visit to a Tesco store in Shanghai, and how there was a clear demand for chicken wings; that would put an extra 15% on the value of a bird.
And finally he wanted to see improvement in the rural environment – positive strategies whereby damage could be mitigated. But much depended on the outcome of the CAP reform negotiations. It was clear taxpayers' money should be spent helping farmers and landowners improve their land, for the benefit of wildlife and rural tourism.
But, Mr Paterson warned, he had been bitterly disappointed by developments during the week in the European Parliament and the progress of CAP negotiations, where retrograde measures were advocated and "idiotic" and unnecessary food subsidies were proposed.
"If we don't watch out we shall end up subsidising food production," he said.
Mr Paterson also spoke at some length about animal diseases, pledging to ensure the bovine TB pilot culls of badgers would go ahead in June in two disease hotspot areas of the South West – and expressing extreme concern about the effects of Schmallenberg Virus, currently becoming manifest in cattle. There were hopes and scientific indication that the worst of the sheep infection might be over, he said.
He ducked some questions and needed briefing help with a couple of local queries – but at least Owen Paterson was there.
"He's turned up and he's listening to us, and that's more than Caroline Spelman ever did – or any number of New Labourites," one veteran farmer told me.