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Lidington: Listening to the Countryside

Delivered to Conservative Rural Action Group Seminar at Conservative Party Conference

Just over a fortnight ago, I joined 407,790 others on the Countryside March through London. It was a massive, peaceful and good-humoured demonstration. But underlying that good humour was a sense of desperation over the crisis in the rural economy and anger at the refusal of Ministers to listen.

John Prescott's jibe about the "contorted faces of the Countryside Alliance" or Alun Michael's studied puzzlement that he did not understand what the marchers wanted only deepen the mood of alienation in our rural communities. We have a Government that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the interests of people in the countryside.

We have shown this morning that our Party is listening, that we do understand not just rural issues but the interdependence of town and country, and that we have ideas on how to help rural communities.

Many of the subjects we've covered today-affordable housing, broadband communication, village shops and post offices, rural transport- fall outside DEFRA's direct departmental responsibility. But Iain and the entire Shadow Cabinet are determined that if we can't for now get joined-up government, we will at least make sure of joined-up Opposition. I see one of my prime responsibilities as to put in place a co-ordinated, cross-departmental strategy to address the needs of rural Britain.

In the few months since Iain asked me to take on this brief, I have spent a lot of time out of London, visiting rural areas and meeting farmers and many other people who live and work in the countryside. And when it comes to policy-making, I'm taking to heart the blunt advice given to me by a farmer in Shropshire. He said to me: "Mr Lidington, before you go making any great policy statements, for goodness sake listen to us first."

I reckon that was good advice.

But the principles on which our detailed policies will be grounded are already clear.

First, profitable agriculture is essential to a thriving rural economy. I welcome the emphasis on profitability in Sir Don Curry's recent report and I see the job of government not to lecture farmers on how to run their businesses but, insofar as it can, to create the conditions in which farmers can make a profit.

Farms are businesses whose core function is to produce food. The best future for farming must lie in moving towards a system where farmers take business decisions in order to deliver what their customers want rather than in response to what government wants. I have much more confidence in the creativity and enterprise of farmers than I do in the goodwill or good judgement of either Whitehall or Brussels.

But second, if we expect our farmers to compete, then it needs to be on fair terms. Yes, the Common Agricultural Policy needs radical reform, but before we sign up to any deal we need to read the small print. The Commission's current proposals would discriminate against British farmers and transfer money away from this country.

Fairness also includes making sure that customers are able to identify British food on the supermarket shelf. While on holiday in August, I went to a big supermarket in Cornwall. You could easily pick out the Cornish cheeses and other local produce - black and white flags of St Piran were visible and there were plenty of them. But it took me a couple of minutes searching through the various packets to find British bacon complete with little red tractor mark. We expect British farmers to meet hygiene and animal welfare rules tougher than any in the world. British customers deserve a labelling system that tells them plainly when they are buying British food.

And we have to stop loading ever more regulations onto our farmers and growers. Fallen stock, the 20-day rule, the welfare of hens, nitrate vulnerable zones: the list goes on. It's not only the regulations themselves, but the way in which they are applied. We need to change the culture of Whitehall so that inspectors and other officials see their job as to help business succeed while complying with the rules, rather than to catch someone out for filling a form in wrong.

Third, we will learn from the experience of other countries. The Irish are far ahead of our own government in controlling Bovine Tuberculosis and in developing an effective vaccine. Surely we should learn from them.

Denmark and Sweden, have farmer-owned milk co-operatives with more than 70 per cent of the market. There, it's not seen as a restrictive practice. Isn't it time we changed our own competition rules?

The Dutch drafted an effective contingency plan to deal with Foot and Mouth Disease, consulted all the interested parties, had it debated by Parliament and implemented it before 2001. It is a disgrace that our Government was incapable of doing the same.

A disgrace only matched by their refusal to hold a public inquiry into the epidemic and their failure even now to impose effective controls on illegal imports of meat.

Fourth, we recognise the role of farmers in shaping and maintaining the landscape of our country. Hedgerows, woodlands, chalk down-land and the open fells of the Lake District exist in the form we know today because of economic decisions taken by previous generations of farmers and landowners.

The landscape of Britain helps give us our sense of identity, it connects us with our history. An attractive and biologically diverse landscape is hugely important to our tourist industry. Our landscape is a public good. And it follows that if we want farmers to compete in the marketplace, yet continue to follow environmental practices that are uneconomic, we must pay them for that work.

Changes in agriculture bring other opportunities to improve our environment. Using suitable farmland for seasonal flood storage should be cheaper and more effective than looking every time to engineering to provide better flood defences. We can turn crops into fuels that don't pollute or carrier bags that will rot down and could replace all that polythene at the supermarket check-out.

Mankind faces daunting environmental challenges. But there is also cause for optimism. In the last couple of weeks, Australian scientists have reported that the hole in the ozone layer has shrunk and may be eliminated completely by 2050. International action, in this case the Montreal Agreement to phase out chloro-fluoro carbons, can work. Britain can use this evidence to persuade the United States and the developing world to take part in international efforts to limit global warming.

Conservative policies on the environment will be based on sound science and a sober assessment of risk.

We'll need regulations but only ones that are both effective and subject to thorough consultation. The fiasco over fridges and freezers is a textbook case of how not to do it. Buck-passing in Whitehall, enormous costs to local councils and the lunatic spectacle of lorry-loads of fridges being carted off to Germany (emitting goodness knows what in exhaust fumes) - all in the name of saving the environment!

Besides regulation, there is a role for fiscal measures and for market measures like charges and tradable permit schemes. During our policy review, we shall examine closely which measures would deliver real environmental benefits. We shall learn from the experience of other countries and we are open to argument even on measures like a carbon tax that we have previously opposed.

What I am determined to avoid is a repeat of Labour's Climate Change Levy. That tax, on Labour's own figures, does virtually nothing to help the environment. It costs manufacturing industry £143 million a year. And it exports orders and jobs to countries with lower standards than our own. It is expensive, bureaucratic and almost totally ineffective - in other words a perfect symbol of Labour's policies.

Two years ago, I visited Pakistan. I talked to people there for whom the political priority was something as basic, as mundane for us, as getting clean drinking water and decent sanitation in their village. I remember standing in the main street of Mirpur and choking on vehicle exhaust fumes that left me with a cough that lingered for days. And millions of people in our world live in those conditions every day of their lives.

At heart, our debates about the countryside and the environment are not about statistics, or learned papers; they're about the lives of real people.

I want my children to grow up in a nation that values its countryside as a place of beauty and wonder, but which is a place too where people live and work, not a theme park or a museum.

And I want them to live in a world in which clean air and pure water are not the privilege of a few but an inheritance enjoyed by all.

Our task now is to shape policies that will turn that dream into reality.

And together, that is what I am determined that we will now do.

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