I’ve been to the launch of the latest State of Nature report. To the extent that such a depressing document can be fun, it was fun. But it was certainly interesting.
The wildlife NGOs managed to entice the new Secretary of State for E, F and RA to the event to make a speech and sit on a panel. Let’s remember Andrea Leadsom is very new in post – it’s early days. The way politics works means that she wasn’t promoted from a junior role in the same area but catapaulted into being the top politician at Defra with very little warning.
Ms Leadsom’s speech wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exciting, but it really wasn’t bad. A good start and well delivered. She talked about delivering better outcomes for this generation; she promised a game-changing approach (coming soon apparently); she wanted to put local communities at the heart of decisions; she pondered better ways to regulate; she talked up natural capital. All these things could be good or bad – we’ll see.
But, rather charmingly, she revealed that when her 12-year-old daughter had heard that Mum (Ms Leadsom) would be meeting Sir David Attenborough then the daughter had got very excited and wanted his autograph. We all want to pay homage to Sir David – me too!
Ms Leadsom has arrived at Defra at the time of a historic opportunity – the opportunity to get a much better, more efficient, equitable and efficient deal between the farming community and the taxpayer in a post-Brexit world. This opportunity has fallen to Ms Leadsom – will she make the most of it?
We give farmers £3bn per annum of our taxes – we can soon decide whether we continue to do that and if so what conditions should apply. My suggestion is £1bn rebate to the Treasury; £1bn to farmers for income support (much less than now, I’d cap payments for large landowners); £1bn (rather more than now) on environmental enhancement. Other solutions are available.
But that is the challenge for Ms Leadsom and her team. As a Brexiteer she now has to come up with something that works better and is better – the status quo won’t do. Large payments to the few at the expense of the many won’t look like a better post-Brexit world.
This is the historic moment that falls to Ms Leadsom. Not since 1973, indeed at no time really since 1945, has there been such an opportunity for change. And so we all look to Ms Leadsom to lead the way. What is needed is a brand of radical Conservatism that really values the countryside, the beauty of rural England, wildlife and the people who both produce it (farmers) and pay for it (taxpayers and consumers).
It seems to me, though it is just a guess, that although Ms Leadsom is not really a natural environmentalist, she is a natural politician. She will sense the danger of leaving things the way they have been for decades as unbefitting the Britain unshackled from the EU that she wanted, and she may relish the responsibility and opportunity of making a much better fist of it this time around.
If she gets it right her daughter should be thrilled.
If she gets it right then people in future may be asked by their sons and daughters to get Ms Leadsom’s autograph if they are lucky enough to sit on a panel with her.