Minister promises a lighter hand on tiller at Defra and more rural support
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson this week revealed there would be no vote to lift the fox hunting ban next year. London Editor Graeme Demianyk spoke to him about a number of rural issues.
Owen Paterson has only held the Government's rural affairs brief since September, but critics have already made their minds up about him. Climate change sceptic, eurosceptic and enemy of red tape were just a few of the crude caricatures drawn in the days after the reshuffle. There was delight, too, at the apparent irony of the minister keeping two badgers as pets as a child. For the record, they were called Bessie and Baz. After all, it is his department – Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – that had sanctioned a cull of badgers to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, which is rife in the Westcountry.
Unsurprisingly, the myths aren't quite fit to print. Not without qualification, in any case. Speaking to the Western Morning News, he makes clear he is no fan of onshore wind farms, or what are "industrial projects in rural areas". And reducing environmental protection? He says Defra has to "get out of people's hair". It is key to getting the rural economy back on track. As for badgers, there is no contradiction in being an animal lover and wanting a targeted cull, he indicates, to secure an all-round healthier animal population. This, after all, is the Conservative MP who while a shadow minister tabled more than 600 parliamentary questions on the spread of bovine TB. It is believed to be a record.
The badger cull remains a hot topic after its start date, at the request of farmers, was postponed by a year. Another burning issue is the dairy farming crisis. Following last year's wave of protests, a new code of conduct has been agreed to ensure producers get a fairer deal for their milk from processors. But, with supermarkets unlikely to increase the prices they pay dramatically, fears of further unrest looms large. Add to that the near silence on a promised vote on repealing the ban on fox hunting, a spate of recent floodings and the economy stuck in a sluggish gear, his ministerial red box overflows.
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First, TB in cattle. The minister, born and bred in rural Shropshire, where he has been an MP since 1997, is clear a cull of badgers, which carry the disease, is still central to the Government's bovine TB eradication policy. There are other measures – restricting livestock movement, investment in vaccinations – but culls that require thousands of badgers to be killed remains the bedrock.
"We have to conduct these two pilots within the science," he says, alluding to the one-year postponement of the Somerset and Gloucestershire culls, due in part to finding a higher number of badgers than expected. "I have had meetings with the National Farmers' Union very recently. And it is absolutely our clear intention is to go ahead with two pilot culls next year. I am totally convinced.
"I used to go down your way a lot as shadow minister. I got to know very many of your farmers down there who have suffered terribly from bovine TB. Last year, 26,000 cattle were hauled off unnecessarily to slaughter. We're heading to a £1 billion cost of this disease and we know exactly how to handle it."
For badgers in Britain, read possums in New Zealand. In France, they've culled badgers as well as foxes, deer and wild boar. "There isn't a single country with a serious cattle industry and problem with TB which doesn't bear down on both," he said. "And we should do the same."
Defra has spent £15.5 million this year on vaccines, but it is no silver bullet. "I don't have a button I can press this afternoon that says 'vaccinate' and everything will be sorted."
But even if the science justifies a cull – though Labour and protest groups say it does not, and that the merest slip-up will make the problem worse – surely the political fall-out has made him more cautious? Queen guitarist Brian May was among the high-profile opponents, and protestors have threatened pro-cull farmers, even before a single animal has been shot. Meanwhile, Labour won a non-binding Commons vote opposing the pilots, which if successful would lead to scores more culls over the next decade. Surely he was spooked?
No, it appears. "Having hit what is now the Opposition, was then supposedly the Government, with 600 parliamentary questions and completely proved the last government's TB policy was not working, with their own answers, I don't have very much time for what they've got to say on the matter. I've looked around the world. I'm absolutely convinced our policy is correct, and we will pursue it."
The Government is less keen to pursue a repeal of the Hunting Act, despite the coalition Government agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promising a free parliamentary vote on the contentious legislation. It remains a live issue. David Cameron's local Oxfordshire hunt was this month prosecuted, though eyebrows were raised over the RSPCA laying out £330,000 to bring the case – 10 times the defence costs. At the time of the ban, Mr Paterson likened supporters of the legislation to Nazis. He claimed "honest, decent" people went hunting and the alternatives of trapping and snaring were "hideously cruel".
Sat in his Whitehall office now, he is more cautious: "I'm fully aware of the strong feelings on this issue. It is a commitment (a vote on repeal). The intention is to find time at the appropriate moment. But we are currently facing some very severe problems such as one of the largest deficits in Western Europe. That is currently taking priority."
As his department is the guardian of the countryside, you would expect the minister to give short shrift to anything that despoils rural Britain. Onshore wind farms, though, divide opinion. Many Conservatives oppose turbines, yet their Lib Dem colleagues are more enthusiastic, viewing green power in all forms as central to reducing Britain's reliance on fossil fuel technology. The conflict has led to tension between Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey and his junior minister, Tory John Hayes, over whether subsidies for the technology should be slashed further.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Paterson, who once described wind farms as "useless", says his views remain consistent. "In my part of the world, the trees grow vertically. There isn't much wind. It seems a very stupid place to build wind farms. I was in Northern Ireland, where there is very significant amounts of wind off the North West coast, there's a big industry building wind turbines. I don't know the economics, but that could well be an appropriate place. My view, very clearly, is that it is horses for courses."
What about the Westcountry? Around 100 turbines litter rural Devon and Cornwall, and many more are planned. Nearby residents are fiercely opposed. "They must not be installed if there is very strong local opposition," he explains. "Over the border (from his constituency) in Wales, there's huge opposition to some proposed wind farms near me. And I think it's wrong to impose what are industrial projects on a rural area and do real damage to the rural economy and real damage to the rural environment."
The rural economy is what the minister is most keen to champion. While farming has, dairy aside, resisted the worst of the downturn, commentators fear the countryside is slowly becoming more like a museum and second-home enclave than a place to live and work. The cornerstone of Government policy is pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into broadband infrastructure, and the Government has also introduced rural growth "networks" – including one across Devon and Somerset – to encourage cutting-edge businesses to set up in the countryside. Cutting red-tape is central, too, he says.
"It's been a constant battle for me being an MP for 15 years in a very rural area to get across the problems of delivering services in a remote rural area. On the specific issue of the economy, it is our clear priority to grow the rural economy – and part of that we can do by getting out of people's hair. After the McDonald regulation review we will see 12,000 less farm visits next year than prior. But also helping with infrastructure – we've got this amazing campaign on broadband. It's going to be £530 million invested to our most remote rural areas, and also improving our mobile phone network. These are absolutely key priorities."
Fixing the rural economy will be impossible without securing a bright future for dairy farming. Protests, including a blockade at the large Wiseman's factory in Bridgwater, Somerset, followed many farmers losing money on each litre of milk they sold after major processors announced reductions to the amount they paid for the product. The cuts were withdrawn, but not the underlying problem: dairy farmers are struggling to turn a profit. Will we see another wave of protests?
Mr Paterson said: "I hope not. Jim (Paice, former Farming Minister) did very well getting the code of practice negotiated. I think there is better negotiation between the processors and milk suppliers. The way ahead is co-operation, as we saw with announcements about what we are doing with producer organisations. The real answer is to add value with finished products, and get exporting."
Britain has, he insists, a "dairy deficit". The country, for example, imports 115,000 tonnes of ice-cream, but only sends 50,000 tonnes abroad. The answer? Eat more British puddings, and punt more overseas. He goes on: "We have a dessert deficit. So first of all import substitution would make a huge difference to our dairy industry. And secondly, we can get exporting, which is why I took the largest delegation ever to Shanghai where we have this enormous growing market in Asia for dairy products. It didn't really exist before."
Critics argue, though, the dominant position of supermarkets means they can sell a pint of milk at a loss to entice shoppers in. Farmers, in turn, have no choice but to accept what they can get from the multiples. Should supermarkets pay more? He ducks the question, but insists "world renowned" cheese and clotted cream dairy products are what farmers should be exploiting, rather than milk.
Mr Paterson said: "It's not for me as a minister to get involved in market negotiations. But what I am absolutely clear about is that the way ahead is to get away from producing a bulk commodity like milk, producing added value finished products."
Labour has criticised the Government for slashing flood defence funding in the aftermath of deluges that battered Britain in general and the South West in particular. Devon and Cornwall alone saw £4 million cut from its budget this year, while critics say investment should be increasing, as extreme weather events are more frequent. Mr Paterson, who visited Devon during the floods, denies funding has been cut, pointing to an extra £120 million promised in the Chancellor's recent autumn statement. Partnership funding – where councils and local businesses match government flood protection cash, as introduced by the coalition – is getting better value for money, he insists.
He said: "When I was in Exeter just after the peak of the floods, there were 6,000 houses in the middle of Exeter protected. It was terrible to see those affected just up the road from Exeter. It was shocking the damage caused. But we should also celebrate that tens of thousands of houses were saved by our flood schemes."