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CLA Centenary Conference

We've all seen photographs of Rural Britain at the turn of 20th century:

Men with crumpled clothes, beards, clay pipes.

Stern faced women in bonnets.

Armies of children outside dilapidated cottages.

In 1907, the British countryside was a different world.

There may have been more post offices then, but

There were no tractors, no combine harvesters.

No cars, no buses.

Nothing like the number of commercial pesticides, no fertilizers.

No mainline electricity.

No mains-connected water.

Few industries in the countryside but for farming.

Half the entire population worked in farming or domestic service

And yet, remarkably, the debates we are having today echo those that raged a century ago.

In 1907, the import of cheap cereals, especially from North America, led to price collapses across the economy. Wheat had hit its lowest price for 150 years in 1894.

In 2007, British farmers are also struggling in the face of cheap imports.

In 1907, Tarriff Reform was deeply divisive - the Conservative Party had just lost a landslide election on the back of it.

In 2007, CAP reform is just as difficult to negotiate.

Between 1901 and 1911, as many as 80,000 farmers left British farming.

A similar number have quit the industry since 1997.

And, just as in 1907, there is a deep concern about the lack of rural infrastructure.

Of course, there were some differences in 1907.

For example, in that year, Britain sent a delegation of civil servants to the backwaters of America and France. They were tasked with bringing rural services up to scratch.

I rather doubt that, in 2007, anyone at all would be interested in taking lessons from the Rural Payments Agency.

But the reason why so many parallels exist between 1907 and 2007 is that the same phenomenon is at work now as it was then.

Globalisation

In the late 19th century, sudden leaps in shipping and manufacturing technology meant that British goods found themselves up against cheaper international alternatives. American grain; Argentinean beef; New Zealand lamb and Australian wool flooded the market.

British farmers struggled to compete. Farming entered a period of depression which lasted from the 1870s right up through World War I and beyond.

The impact of two World Wars on the way that Governments, and later the EU through the CAP, thought about food and farming was huge and lasting.

100 years later, we are almost back where we started.

Globalisation is not all bad. It reduces overall food prices for consumers and, given a fair chance, produces higher incomes for developing countries.

But there is a price to pay. And in 2007, as in 1907, that price is being paid by the countryside.

We cannot have a prosperous, beautiful countryside without a viable farming sector.

The countryside looks the way it does because of British farming. If we want it to remain beautiful and diverse and full of wild animals and plants, we need farming to remain prosperous.

We shouldn't forget, either, that in certain places, including parts of the South West, the East Midlands, East Anglia, the North of England and the Welsh Borders, farming is still the main source of employment; in the North Yorkshire Moors, for instance, half the workforce is still employed in the farming sector.

Furthermore, rural tourism - worth treble the income of farming pound for pound, and a much bigger employer - is dependent upon the work done by farmers and landowners which makes the British countryside a magnet for visitors.

Nonetheless, rural poverty is also a serious concern.

As the Young Foundation concluded in March of this year:

"Stereotypical views of the countryside portray it as a rural idyll, where inhabitants benefit from strong communities, a slow pace of life, wealth and mutual support.

"In reality however, deprivation and inequality are high. 911,000 rural residents live within the bottom 20% of the UK's nationally most deprived wards."

So, support for the countryside is not just about food, beauty and biodiversity; it's about jobs and social welfare too.

The question is what form should that support take, given that globalization is, like it not, a reality, and that protectionism is illegal and doesn't work anyway?

The relationship between farming and Government will never be straightforward. And, like it not, it will usually be a much closer relationship that exists in other sectors.

At present it is dysfunctional. We need to put that right.

Government can reasonably look to farming to guarantee food supplies, and to promote beauty, biodiversity and to underpin the rural economy.

These are public goods. Not in the sense that they belong to the State (Heaven forbid!) but in the sense that we all benefit from them. They have a value which is insufficiently recognized in the marketplace.

But the rural community looks to the Government to create a framework which assists, rather than hinders, profitable farming.

The fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency has contributed to a deep and growing rift between Government and rural communities.

It's not just the wholesale chaos and loss of income, although those are bad enough.

What really rankles is the complete lack of responsibility or accountability in Central Government for the mistakes it has made.

There are plenty of examples, but nothing better illustrates the inequality which has crept into the relationship between the Government and the countryside than the disaster of the RPA.

It is symptomatic of the reversal in the fundamental democratic principle that the Government exists to serve the people - not the other way round.

I recognize that restoring trust, repairing the fractured relationship between people who live and work in the countryside and the Government which is there to work for them, will not be an easy process.

But, for me, the restoration of trust is an absolute priority.

So today I will set out 6 commitments which are intended to put the relationship between Government and the countryside on a better footing, enable the restoration of trust, and help the rural economy to prosper.

First, I want to see power returned to local communities.

Why is local democracy important for the countryside?

Let me take just one example: housing.

Everyone accepts that we urgently need more affordable rural housing.

The average rural property price is now 6.7 times the average rural salary.

Young men and women are being priced out of their own communities. They don't like it; their families don't like it; and it's bad for social cohesion and a sense of community.

The 'solution' offered by the Government's Barker Review is a Stalinist style independent quango, unelected and unaccountable.

I cannot think of a better way to make existing tensions more acute.

The tension is between the need for more housing and the desire to protect and preserve the countryside from over-development.

I remember Chris Patten saying many years ago, when he was Environment secretary, that we shouldn't regard other people's homes as some kind of pollution. We don't see our own homes that way.

He was right.

But equally, we should not look at housing - as the Treasury appears to do now - as some kind of utilitarian instrument whose prime purpose is to achieve a set of macro-economic goals

We need new, affordable homes, not "units".

We need house builders who understand the meaning of "vernacular architecture"; who respect landscape and settings; who use local materials; who believe in the difference that aesthetics and ecology can make to the quality of life.

And we need a Government that understands that simply slapping the word "sustainable" in front of the word "communities" doesn't fool anyone.

In fact, without proper infrastructure investment in roads, schools, hospitals, post offices, water resources - without thinking of the basics that communities need in order to flourish - present Government policy is in danger of creating deracinated, broken places with no sense of community at all.

My worry is that the slums of the future are going up in a field near you.

I believe that Local Authorities are in the right place to wrestle with these dilemmas.

A top down, authoritarian approach to planning is resulting in exactly what you'd expect. Resentment and obstruction.

Local authorities, accountable to their electorates, are best placed to balance the need to meet local housing pressures with the need to protect local landscapes. The democratic process would ensure that this happened.

We don't need new planning quangos. We don't need unelected Regional Government either. We need a lot more common sense when it comes to planning; and yes, this applies just as much to the conversion of agricultural buildings for the purpose of creating new business opportunities as it does to building new homes.

But my emphasis on localism does not mean that central Government should neglect its responsibilities in setting the right framework for farming and the countryside.

Indeed, Government intervention will be crucial in maximizing the power of the informed consumer.

Last year, British consumers spent more on 'ethical' goods than they did on 'sin' goods such as beer and cigarettes.

"Trust the people" is an old Conservative axiom with a strong modern resonance.

I am encouraged by signs that we are becoming more aspirational about the food we eat; and by the way that supermarkets are responding to public demand.

Of course, locally grown produce need not cost more, as regular visitors to farmers' markets will know.

But there is evidence that a growing number of British consumers are willing to pay a bit more for:

Higher animal welfare standards;

A beautiful countryside;

Environmental benefits, such as lower food miles and carbon emissions;

Ethical values; and

Supporting local communities and rural economies.

However, for this to work properly, more people need to know that these benefits exist.

So the second thing a Conservative Government would do would be to introduce honesty in labeling.

British farmers have some of the highest animal welfare and ecological standards in the world. Consumers value and are prepared to pay for these, and should be allowed the option of making up their own minds on the basis of clear and honest information.

Danish pork processed in Britain is not British.

I know that this may raise issues with the European Union. But the role of a government that cares about British farming is not to sit on its hands and say "there's nothing we can do", but instead to test the rules and if necessary challenge and change them. That's what they do in France, isn't it?

Thirdly, a Conservative Government would enable taxpayers to put their mouths where their money has already gone.

The UK Government and wider public sector buys £150 billion worth of goods and services each year. Some £2 billion of this is spent on food.

This money should directed towards fostering the economic, environmental and social benefits of local and national food production. Towards the countryside, in other words.

I want to see more British taxpayers' money being spent on British produce.

At the very least, we should move rapidly towards a situation where publicly procured food meets the Little Red Tractor standard, something we proposed two years ago.

The market is responding to a public appetite for more fresh, locally produced food. But, as usual, the public sector is way behind.

I know that the CLA prides itself on being non- party political, but is it not a little ironic that the Prime Minister helped launch the CLA's 'Just Ask' Local Food Campaign, given that the majority of his Government's Departments - including Number 10 itself - have no idea where their food comes from - and show little interest in finding out.

That must change.

Then there's the issue of biofuels.

Just as farming contributes to climate change emissions, so it has a means, through the development of biofuels, to mitigate its impact.

This is not a silver bullet. But locally sourced biofuels do offer the prospect of developing new, profitable, markets for agricultural produce and we want to encourage them.

What we don't want to encourage is the destruction of the rainforests in the name of the environment.

The world's number one source of biofuel is palm oil.

The United Nations Environment Programme predicts that 98 per cent of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests will be destroyed by 2022 as a result of clearances for palm cultivation.

This is acutely perverse.

The destruction of the rainforests is a bigger contributor to climate change than the entire world's current emissions from transport.

It is clearly unacceptable that EU and UK biofuel targets may be inadvertently supporting deforestation around the world.

Our fourth commitment is therefore to adopt sustainability criteria for any biofuels covered by EU targets and incentives. Biofuel companies should be asked to provide both a lifecycle analysis of carbon emissions and a local environmental impact report. This not only contribute to saving essential rainforests, but also incentivise the cultivation of British biofuels, which are genuinely sustainable.

So, to summarise thus far, a Conservative Government would help to ensure a profitable countryside by:

- giving power back to local communities;

- putting honesty back into food labeling, empowering the informed consumer to buy British;

- leveraging Government procurement to support British production and the values attached to it;

- promoting UK biofuels which meet sustainability criteria.

I am aware of some concerns that our emphasis on environmental protection and improvement may involve adding to the already enormous heap of regulations and controls.

Let me assure you that this is not the case.

Our fifth commitment is to a vastly simplified regulatory regime.

A key concept for Our Quality of Life Policy Group is a focus on outcomes instead of process. We should be identifying what we want and setting out to get it. Not identifying what we don't want and crawling round everywhere trying to stop it.

In 21st Century Britain, we employ hundreds of thousands of people just to stop things happening. We have created an expensive, time wasting, negative culture. Behind it is the implied insult that, if left to their own devices, people will do the wrong thing.

Of course, Government needs to set standards to protect human and animal health, avoid pollution, ensure animal welfare, and so on. But the assumption should be that these will be met, not deliberately dodged.

It's about trust.

A dramatically simplified system of random inspections, backed up by tough penalties where failures are identified would surely be more effective than the present overload of forms, boxes to tick, and legions of ill-informed, clipboard wielding jobsworths to answer to.

And let's not fool ourselves that problem is all to do with Europe.

As home grown food production declines, home grown bureaucracy is flourishing.

The cross compliance regulations drafted by the EU totaled 13 lines.

Once DEFRA got on the case, the UK Cross Compliance Handbook ballooned to 147 pages, issued in 3 separate tranches. Furthermore, these documents cannot be read without a whole series of companion documents, from the 50 page Cross Compliance Guidance for the Management of Habitats and Landscape Features to the 41 page Cross Compliance Guidance for Soil Management.

The mind boggling complexity of agricultural regulations is compounded by economy-wide regulations. The British Chambers of Commerce calculates that the cumulative cost of regulation has now risen to £55.6 billion. Both John Gummer's Quality of Life Policy Group and John Redwood's Economic Competitiveness Group are taking a hard look at ways to cut down on regulatory inflation.

We must make good things, like innovation, enterprise, and environmental management easy, instead of not worth the hassle.

Sixth, and finally, we would stop Government interference in rural cultural traditions and freedoms.

The right to own and manage private property applies in the countryside just as much as it does in urban areas.

Diversity is not only accepted but positively encouraged in our towns and cities, and we should extend this courtesy to the countryside. We need to respect rural values and recognize that, despite - or perhaps because - we live in an increasingly homogenized world, it is wrong to impose metropolitan values on rural communities.

This applies to country sports as much as anything.

We have made it clear, and I repeat it today, that a Conservative Government would give Parliament the opportunity to reconsider the illiberal ban on hunting.

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I don't say that Government has all the answers. It hasn't.

And I don't pretend that dealing with the consequences of Globalization will be easy or painless. It throws down enormous challenges to the farming industry, whose resilience in the face of adversity has already, one may think, been tested quite enough.

As we return to a macro-economic environment for agriculture which more closely resembles 1907 than 1977 there is a need to become more market aware and to add value wherever possible. The Government's job is, as I have said, to help rather than hinder this process of change.

Lord Onslow was right to speak, all those years ago, of the need for us to work together, constructively and positively. The foundation of such a relationship must be mutual respect and trust.

One final thought.

The overriding global challenges we face today are the linked issues climate change and population growth.

Already, we are seeing, particularly in Australia, in parts of Africa and Asia, and in parts of Southern Europe - but also to some extent in the UK - the consequences of a changing climate on crop production.

We in Western Europe have lived for the last fifty years in an age of plenty unparalleled in our history. This fact is reflected in the inexorable, if typically disorganized, shift in EU farm policy to subsidizing environmental management rather than food production.

We cannot rule out the possibility that, by the time these reforms are finally complete, the world may have turned again.

In the end, food is not a luxury. That's why we believe that food security remains an important issue; and implicit in much of what I have said today is the need to retain and foster the production of food in these islands.

So, peering ahead to the next ten years and trying to discern what they will hold for the British countryside, I wonder whether we may be heading back to the future?

Maybe TS Eliot's words, from a poem imbued with a deep love and respect for the rural landscape, it's history, culture and sense of continuity, will turn out to be apt:

"We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started,

And know the place for the first time."

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