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Williams: Safeguarding our rural economy

To the Welsh Conservative Party conference in Llandudno.

"I welcome the opportunity to speak here today, and it is also a great honour to be addressing a leader so committed to our environment.

After all, it's the environment, and climate change in particular, which is posing the most serious challenge to us right now.

We're already seeing its impact, in the unprecedented speed at which global temperatures are rising.

The worst effects may not be fully seen for decades, but without serious and committed action now, we will be leaving a highly dangerous legacy for the next generation.

But this need, to change and adapt to tackle climate change, shouldn't be seen as a burden, or something we have to endure.

I believe it represents an amazing opportunity that, with Conservative leadership, can revitalise the rural economy, and go hand in hand with our vision for the countryside and the people who live in it.

Wales, and North Wales in particular, can play a crucial role in this.

It's an area rich in energy resources that can help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

On one hand we have established facilities such as the hydro-electric power plant at Dinorwig, which has been producing renewable energy for over twenty years.

While on the other, there is a diverse mix of resources, such as biomass and biofuels whose full potential is yet to be realised.

We also have households who want to participate through Micro-Generation. Applications for grant support under the Clear Skies scheme from North Wales, and Wales as a whole continue to rise.

The limiting factor isn't public willingness, but government support, which means that only a fraction of applications can be supported.

Rising utility bills, as well as the costs of oil and gas, make the importance of Micro-Generation all the more pressing.

And while demand and enthusiasm for these technologies is growing, it's discouraging that Labour's successor scheme, the Low Carbon Building Programme, has a budget 13 million pounds less than its predecessor schemes.

Better government support would not only mean that more households could increase their energy efficiency, it would also create opportunities for entrepreneurship and business.

The environment, and the people who live and work in it, all need a long-term, intelligent policy that can provide a sustainable future.

Conservatives know that these issues cannot be looked at in isolation of each other. The environment, rural communities, the tourist industry and the economy are all inter-related and inter-dependent.

This has been Labour's failure. Their continued interference has badly undermined the countryside, and left it in a very fragile state.

One of our greatest strengths as Conservatives is that we genuinely care and understand the countryside.

What's needed, more than anything, is for sustainable communities. But in practical terms, what does this mean?

We have to look at the heart of our communities, to the small schools around which town and village life so often revolves.

Far too many are facing closure, and the Conservative Party will continue its efforts to protect as many as possible.

However, this alone will not be enough. We have to look at the root cause.

Pupil numbers are declining because too many young families are being priced out of rural communities.

This is a decisive moment for Wales, and for the future of our unique culture. If the current situation remains unchanged, our communities, and our Welsh-speaking ones in particular, will have no long-term future unless new generations can grow up within them.

We need new, affordable housing that lets first time buyers get a foothold on the property ladder.

Again, this has to be carried out in harmony with policy for rural communities. It would be positively harmful if small villages and towns were unbalanced by sudden, large-scale building developments.

Development should be planned on a long-term basis, and new housing should be spread geographically over a local authority.

Likewise, new affordable homes, and all new buildings need to be constructed to higher standards of energy efficiency, and information on Micro-Generation should be made freely available to all individuals and developers.

All of this together has the potential to set something powerful in motion. We can start building communities that are sustainable not only in terms of energy, but of people and families.

The agricultural sector is also fundamental to the environment and countryside.

Our farmers produce food of the highest quality. Welsh lamb for example, is eaten in Italian schools that have realised the importance of giving children a quality diet.

I find it shameful that some councils are still not using Welsh produce in our own schools.

We need to see more local procurement, by public bodies, as well as more farmers markets to provide local produce to consumers who are becoming increasingly aware of the real value of quality food.

In practical terms it's also the farmers who manage Wales' landscape and environment.

I'm very grateful that the agri-environment schemes Conservatives inspired have allowed farmers to increase wildlife habitats and bio-diversity.

Despite this, the Welsh Assembly Government is planning to axe the most important of these schemes, Tir Mynydd.

I will continue to work with the farming unions to protect the future of upland farming, and the management of our beautiful landscape.

Farmers also have a considerable opportunity to produce renewable energy. There is a great potential for a revival of the agricultural economy through biomass and biofuels.

However, farmers in Wales need the support of the Welsh Assembly Government in diversifying.

These opportunities are currently being hindered by cross-border inequalities, and at the very least, there has to be parity if biocrops are to be cultivated in significant amounts.

The role agriculture can play, is significant. But the industry is increasingly fragile after years of Labour's interference and a mounting bureaucratic burden.

They have passed poorly thought out legislation, based on prejudice, not evidence.

We are now left with an animal welfare bill that makes a farmer responsible for protecting his animals from predation, and a hunting ban that prevents him from doing just that in any practical way.

Agriculture needs stability, and for a government to take a long-term and pragmatic approach with it.

In conclusion, Wales badly needs a government that understands the diverse needs of rural communities, and the Conservatives are alone in being able to offer this.

I will continue to spare no effort in holding the Welsh Assembly Government accountable for ignoring rural and North Wales.

This is a very positive time for the party, and we have great opportunities to build on our success in the last general and local elections.

I have every belief that we can return even more Conservative AMs to Cardiff in 2007, and begin laying the foundation for a stable, sustainable future for rural Wales."

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