Leadsom’s historic opportunity

Photo: Defra https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-ministerial-appointment-july-2016-secretary-of-state-for-environment-food-and-rural-affairs
Photo: Defra

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.



22 Replies to “Leadsom’s historic opportunity”

  1. We’ll see. My sense of optimism seems to have disappeared into a politician & vested interest induced coma.

  2. I look forward to her putting science at the forefront of decision making, instead of prejudice, folklore and the lies of the NFU and the Countryside Alliance.

  3. I don’t think farmers – and to quite an extent, conservationists – have any inkling of what is going to hit them when they are face to face with the Treasury, out from under the shield of CAP – and be in no doubt, puny Defra will have little say in the future. ‘Its our money and this is how we’d like to carve it up’ arguments won’t last a minute even in a Conservative administration, nor the current conservation problem that it is all about spending. There are huge opportunities here, much bigger than almost anyone realises, and they are all there written by the real economists of the natural Capital Committee – we can get the spend back several times over if we start from what we want – OUTCOMES – and work back to land use; cash savings of up to £1 billion a year on water issues alone + another £1 billion of flooding losses saved, we can give our kids the countryside they need on their doorsteps and make more money and produce more food from recovered fish stocks. And its language the Treasury understands, and could bite with a Government looking to invest wisely to get the economy moving. The prize is there for anyone who can break out of the sectoral deadlock of the 20th C and move into a 21st C world of multi-purpose, outcome focussed land use.

  4. I like your suggestion Mark, but would be utterly gob-smacked if a Tory government took a single penny away from wealthy farmers. Struggling tennant farmers might well end up worse off but not the land-owners. Cynical yes, but based on decades of experience of leopards not changing their spots.

  5. If she is anything like her predecessor, Liz Truss, then its better to be pessimistic, as things can only get better. Truss reminds me of some of the characters in ” Yes Prime Minister “full of waffle and manure.

  6. As ever Mark, your charity knows no bounds. A generosity of spirit all too rare in these selfish times.
    I fear, however, that Andrea may have just one over-riding agenda:

    “She talked about delivering better outcomes for this generation [less regulation]; she promised a game-changing approach [less regulation] (coming soon apparently); she wanted to put local communities at the heart of decisions [less regulation]; she pondered better ways to regulate [less regulation]; she talked up natural capital [a monetising approach to nature which can have its place but generally leads to calls for less regulation]. All these things could be good or bad – we’ll see.”

    I very much hope she can focus on the positive things she can do for nature but her mania for less regulation doesn’t fill me with optimism. Devotees of this blog are well aware of how many “guardians of the countryside” choose to act when left to self-regulate.

    We shall see. But let’s keep our eyes well and truly open.

  7. I particularly enjoyed the NFU attempt to promote agriculture today on the back of State of Nature report. Lots of photos of smiling farmers with successful wildlife schemes as if that was typical. 6 miles of farmland on my commute home tonight took me past fields missing hedges and with zero margin despite it being a basic requirement of single farm payment. Not saying all farmers are bad, just the NFU and Tories seem to be trying hard to convince us that they’re all excellent custodians of the countryside. Perhaps we need C4 to make a Benefit Scroungers type documentary highlighting breaches of subsidy schemes to show the reality of the farmed environment. Seems to persuade Mail readers!

    1. Julian, please don’t be depressed but continue to do your best (against whatever Brexit throws at you) to farm responsibly. My comment above included an observation from my usual route home from work, it was not targeted, yet nearly every field would fail to meet the basic requirements for SFP as they’re ploughed up to the roots of the few hedgerows we have left. This was not a series of cherry-picked fields to highlight a particular viewpoint, and that is far more depressing. The NFU failed to show anything typical about agriculture in the UK in their puff-piece glamour shots yesterday. I know this is generally not the fault of individual farmers, but a failure in policy for decades, but to suggest that all is fine and rosy and that SoN is inaccurate (I’d imagine it was very heavily reviewed for accuracy) just makes the representative body look like their heads are in the sand.
      My comment about Benefit Scroungers was more an indictment of an unsympathetic mass media than a dig at farmers, but where else could you claim taxpayers money to support your living and not be labelled thus? When I look at the fields on my way home, I see claims for income support based on recipients failing to follow even the basic environmental conditions ‘demanded’ by the government.

  8. Glad to hear that you thought positively of Ms Leadsom yesterday.
    However, I’m interested in how you would break up the £3billion further. As you must be fully aware there is a small thing called a food price crisis going on at the moment so far as food producers are concerned. If we are to cut support to farmers then food prices will need to increase. How do you suggest we do that within a global economy or would you not mind if hundreds of smaller farmers went out of business?

    1. Ben E – thanks for your comment.

      It’s a big subject isn’t it?

      I would mind if lots of smaller farmers went out of business – I’d rather choose which ones went. I’d like the inefficient and biodiversity-unfriendly ones to go first. How can we arrange that?

      If small farmers go to the wall then their land is farmed by big farmers. It has been this for centuries. Do we have any data that show whether big or small farmers are more wildlife-friendly?

    1. I totally agree, Steve, this is a very useful article. I haven’t agreed with quite a lot of what Dieter Helm has said in the past, but this seems a really good analysis that should be widely read – especially by farmers!

  9. Ben, I think the age of small farmers has well and truly finished. We are being paid the same price for commodities that we were in 1989 today and approx the same level of subsidy. The industry has basically split between the very small low cost operations, owner run, and the bigger operations. The numbers involved in agriculture are published by Defra and are collated from the June censuses. You can look the figures up but I think I’m right that we are at an all time low in terms of active farmer numbers. There does seem to be a lack of understanding and actually a lack of interest in farming trends by NGOs. I was struck by some of comments in the SON report which were very out of touch with developments in farming over the last decade. For instance there has been a big switch back to spring cropping as an example. Some recent cropping methods actually seem quite beneficial to wildlife such as cover crops and zero till but this hasn’t been grasped by the environmental NGOs (despite one them running their own farm).

  10. Not that it matters none but I do find myself wondering why Mrs L would allow DEFRA to use as standard issue an image of her obviously distorted by the proximity of the camerol

  11. Chris, kind words thank you. . .ive made my views on this clear before, I don’t want subsidies, environmental or otherwise. Subsidies basically slip through the industry’s hands and fuel a level of pricing for inputs which reflect their contribution. Ultimately they lead nowhere. We have to survive as an industry subsidy free. Quite where that puts our environmental services I’m not sure. Personally I look after my own patch as ultimately it’s in my own best interests to do so.

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