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Speech

Conference 2012: Owen Paterson

Rt Hon Owen Paterson, Tuesday, October 9 2012

Owen Paterson

As we've heard, we are making real progress in reversing the thirteen years of shameful neglect our countryside suffered at the hands of the Labour government.

My predecessor, Caroline Spelman, should be given particular credit for her role in overseeing this. But while significant progress has been made, much remains to be done.

As someone... who has lived in the countryside all my life; who comes from a rural business background; and who has represented North Shropshire for 15 years it is a tremendous privilege to have been asked to take this on.

And I am pleased to have the help of David Heath, Richard Benyon and Rupert de Mauley. My instructions from the Prime Minister were to boost growth in the rural economy whilst continuing to improve our environment.

One of my first events was a meeting at No 10 with farmers, producers, distributors and exporters.

The wider food supply chain supports 3.7 million jobs and contributes nearly £90 billion a year to the UK economy.

While we are already helping secure 6,000 apprenticeships in the food and drink manufacturing sector alone, we must continue to work with the whole industry.

To get the right people into the right jobs

To give them the necessary skills

To capitalise on the opportunities offered by the growing global demand for high-quality British products.

As we help our farmers and growers seize these opportunities, we must also help them overcome the difficulties.

We must continue to cut regulation and get out of people’s hair.

We must radically reform Europe’s outdated and monolithic agricultural policy – one size does not fit all.

We must radically reform Europe’s fisheries policy, which is a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster.

We need to bring these decisions closer to home.

This summer the plight of our dairy farmers has been all too apparent.

Jim Paice deserves our heartfelt praise for his work in bringing farmers and processers together to agree a Code of Practice, which will rebalance their relationship and give greater certainty to our milk producers.

We can also do our bit. Each year we import…115,000 tonnes of ice cream – more than double the 50,000 we send abroad. 150,000 tonnes of yoghurt – six times the 25,000 we export.

Just as we got behind Team GB this summer, we must get behind our farmers. By buying British, we can support our producers AND enjoy some of the best dairy products in the world.

The main threat, however, to our cattle industry comes from bovine TB.

Last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle at a cost of nearly £100 million.

A cost that will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if this disease is left unchecked.

Let’s be clear, bovine TB imposes a shattering financial and emotional cost on our farmers, their families and communities.

This will only get worse if we continue the cowardly policy of inaction pursued by Labour in government.

Let me tell you, there is no easy solution.

While we continue to spend £15.5 million on research into vaccines:

- an injectable badger vaccine remains impracticable, with animals having to be trapped and injected annually;

- there is no workable, oral badger vaccine and there probably won’t be for several years

- an effective vaccine for cattle is some way off. In any event, the vaccination of our national herd is prohibited by EU legislation, which, even once we have a workable vaccine, will take years to modify.

We must, therefore, learn from the experience of other countries. We have to use every tool at our disposal. That’s why we’re trialling a badger cull.

We need healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle.

Only if we work to eradicate the reservoir of TB in our badgers, will we have the strong and prosperous dairy industry the public wishes to see.

We don’t just face animal diseases though.

We have to be constantly vigilant for disease in our plants and trees.

Many people are rightly concerned about the danger that ash dieback poses to the 80 million ash trees in the British countryside.

We have therefore launched a rapid consultation, which ends on 26 October, with a view to introducing an emergency import ban on potentially diseased ash trees.

Safeguarding our natural environment has to be of the utmost importance.

The Rural Statement that I launched in Cumbria is our commitment to “successful rural businesses and thriving rural communities in a living, working countryside”.

In these tough economic times, we must help the rural economy unlock its potential.

We must put in place the conditions that will enable the 500,000 businesses in rural England to grow and the many business ideas and start ups to take root.

Broadband and mobile phone coverage are key.

In Cumbria, at the end of a long stony track in an old barn at the top of a fell, I was amazed to see an architects’ business designing golfing villas in Nasiriyah in Iraq.

For the first time, we have a technology which can bridge the gap between urban and rural: transforming our rural economy.

That’s why we are investing £530 million in the roll out of high speed broadband to rural communities. That was the good news.

Mobile phone coverage in rural areas is dire.

The countryside must be the only place in the UK where our mobile phone conversations end with the word ‘Hello’?

How many times have you lost the signal during an important call? How can you hope to run a business without reliable reception?

I am absolutely determined to work with Maria Miller and Eric Pickles to overcome this. We can only unlock growth in the rural economy by harnessing advances in technology.

The next day in Nottingham, I opened a £45 million flood defence scheme.

The scheme will not only protect 16,000 properties but also free more than 500 acres of land from the blight of flooding, creating the conditions for private sector investment.

The events of the past fortnight have demonstrated all too clearly the vulnerability of many of our communities to flooding.

I would like to thank the Environment Agency for their work with local authorities in bringing forward mitigation measures.

And reaffirm our commitment to invest over £2 billion in flood and coastal defence management.

An investment which will safeguard people’s homes and livelihoods and see £8 saved for every £1 spent on flood defences.

Environment and economy Improving our environment for future generations is one of the great challenges we as a society face.

But we must not be afraid of major infrastructure projects which improve the economy.

At Wallasea Island in Essex, I saw how 4.5 million tonnes of soil from the excavations for Crossrail will be used to transform 1,500 acres of land into a valuable wetland habitat.

A habitat which will attract tens of thousands of migratory birds and up to 100,000 visitors a year.

The partnership between the RSPB and Crossrail shows how huge infrastructure projects can help to generate economic growth AS WELL as helping wildlife.

We can have a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Imaginative thinking will see our economy, environment AND wildlife thrive.

As we look to the future, we must continue to explore new ways of investing in our biodiversity and environment and rewarding those who are already doing so.

Scientific and technological advances have a key role to play in enabling us to benefit from energy sources we never previously thought possible.

The concept of anaerobic digestion, for example, is tremendous. We have a huge volume of food waste in this country which we should use for power rather than sending to landfill.

We must, however, ensure that the RIGHT measures are deployed in the RIGHT places to deliver the RIGHT results.

It’s horses for courses. In my part of the world, local residents – 300 of whom turned up at a public meeting last week – are concerned about the impact of proposed wind farm pylons on their communities.

Nearby, dairy farmers are being outbid for land by those who want to grow maize specifically for anaerobic digestion. These are the unintended consequences of renewable technology.

They risk upsetting the delicate balance of interests that underpins our living, working countryside.

My Department will work closely with DECC as it considers future support levels for low carbon energy.

This will ensure that the impact of these new technologies on the rural economy and the environment is fully taken into account.

The relationship between renewable energy sources and the communities we expect to host them must be appropriate and sustainable.

And, above all, acceptable to local people.

Only by creating a prosperous, healthy economy can we improve our environment.

You can’t have one without the other.

That’s why we are determined to:

- put in place the infrastructure

- reduce the regulation

- allow everyone to get on with the job

Investing in our economy.

Investing in our environment.

Unlocking rural Britain’s potential.

Rt Hon Owen Paterson

Owen is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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