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Ainsworth: Our task is to revive the countryside

In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool this afternoon, Peter Ainsworth MP, Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, said:

"We have shown today that we understand the plight of our agricultural industry, the worries of rural Britain, and the damage to our environment. No-one must doubt either our determination to find solutions or the passion we will bring to the task.

Together, we must rededicate ourselves to the recovery of our agricultural industry and our rural way of life; to building a secure and sustainable future.

And we must make a new commitment to work for our countryside and our environment, not against it; not only in our policies, but also in the way we lead our lives and the example we set to others.

We hold the earth in trust and it is our duty to protect it for those who will come after us - it is part of the covenant from one generation to another.

We face great challenges and we have a great team for the task.

Ann Winterton is a campaigner. She will be campaigning for farmers and fishermen and campaigning for British interests in Europe. Her place in the Shadow Cabinet sends a clear message. Agriculture and Fisheries may have been airbrushed from the title of Labour's new Department, but not from the conscience of this Party. We will never turn our back on farmers or on the struggling fishermen.

Jonathan Sayeed and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, will bring vigour and knowledge to our efforts. And, I am delighted that in the Lords, Hazel Byford and Robin Glentoran will continue to offer wise counsel and a deep understanding. And because finding solutions is not only a matter for us in Britain, we will also be working closely with our spokesman in the European Parliament, Robert Sturdey.

A great team. We need it.

The task is to recover the countryside; to ensure safe, reliable food; economic vitality; a living and beautiful landscape; an environment we can be proud to pass on to our children and grandchildren. This is one of the great tasks for our generation; it is true Conservative work and we have to do it together.

But after two General Election defeats, we cannot go on as before. We know that and we accept that things have to change - the way we campaign, the tone of our debates - but not our principles and values. We will always stand up for the individual, the strengthening of communities, getting government out of people's lives and working to create opportunity and choice for all. These values are right for every age; our job is to make them work for our age.

At this time, when our democratic values are threatened by the evil of terrorism, we should pause to think of the insidious but real threat posed by indifference. Most people don't care much about politics and they distrust politicians. That's not their fault; it's ours, and we'd better do something about it.

The time has come for all of us engaged in politics to change the way we think about our relationship with the electorate. We cannot blame them if we fail to deliver what they want. It is for us to find the answers and to restore faith with the public.

This will require much work, but in Iain Duncan Smith we have a Leader determined to win. And by reconnecting politics with people, that is what we will do.

This will mean change and challenge, but making changes and meeting challenges will be essential to our survival and future success.

The same is true of Britain's agricultural industry. Like our Party, rural Britain has reached a defining moment.

The Common Agricultural Policy has failed. We know it has failed, you know it has failed, the Government knows it has failed; even the EU knows it has failed.

It has failed consumers, failed the environment, and failed farmers. A policy which subsidises farmers to produce food surpluses at the same time as subsidising them to leave land idle is just plain stupid. Farmers don't want to be paid for spraying their crops with weed killer. All this must change and we will campaign for it to change.

The need to embrace change always seems to come at the worst possible time. This is the worst of times for farmers.

Of all the dismal facts and figures which chart the decline, one stands out: since 1997, farm incomes have halved, and halved again. The Government puts average farm incomes at just £5,200, that's about £100 for a working week. A working week that gets longer and longer as farmers struggle to stay afloat.

I have a letter here from a dairy farmer in Gloucestershire. He says that because of delays with implementing the Thirty Month scheme this autumn, he has been left with mouths he cannot afford to feed. "What I am planning to do", he writes, "Is take all my Over Thirty Month cattle to any outlying grass I have, and feed them on straw only, until they are taken or die. There is no way I can use up feed stocks for them at the expense of the dairy herd or young stock growing for the future, if there is one".

What an appalling position to be in. Across Britain, farmers are saying that there's no future in their work. If there is no future in farming, then the future for our landscape is bleak.

It is easy to forget that the countryside which means so much to us; the pattern of hedgerows, coppices, lanes, even the wilderness of the high hills; is an environment fashioned by the hand of man.

One thing is clear: when the immediate crisis caused by Foot and Mouth is over, returning to the status quo will not be an option. It would mean a return to decline and dereliction.

Hard though it is, the worst of times is the best of times to plan for the future. The near collapse of rural Britain under FMD forces us all to think about the kind of countryside, and the environment, we want our children to inherit.

At the heart of rural Britain are our farmers, the custodians of the countryside. For thirty years they have worked within a dependency culture, shifting their practices with each shift of policy or subsidy from Brussels. Where has this got them? There are now fewer farmers earning less than at any time since the Second World War.

Managing the landscape in a sustainable way should mean more farmers, and farm workers, not fewer. The future lies not in subsidies for unsustainable agri-industrial food production, nor in turning landscape into a museum exhibit, but in developing, and putting to work, a structure which will encourage more local produce to be consumed locally, a better return to those who work on the land, and a better deal for all of us as consumers.

Whilst supermarkets will remain a way of life, farmers markets, direct sales, the use of the Internet and box delivery are showing a new way forward. We support these initiatives, and we want to encourage less intensive farming, fewer pesticides, and more organic produce. It is wrong that over 70% of the demand for organic foods has to be met by imports, and we will campaign for that to change.

But if we have learned one thing from the devastation of Foot and Mouth, it is that the countryside is not just about farming and the food industries.

Tourism which is, or was, a £65 billion industry, has had an appalling year; and nowhere more so than in the countryside.

Across Britain, pubs, small shops, B&B's, and equestrian centres have all felt the pain, and nowhere more so than in Cumbria and the South West. If farming is the heart of rural Britain, businesses like these are its lifeblood. Their importance is social as well as economic, and the fact is that Government policies towards FMD aimed at shoring up the farming economy have wreaked massive damage on the wider rural economy that could take years to repair.

Inevitably, in times of crisis, there have been divisive voices. But those who argue the case for farming against tourism, or vice-versa, must understand that we are all in this together. A derelict countryside, bereft of farm animals and the wildlife that comes with biodiversity, is an economic disaster as well as an environmental tragedy.

The interests of farming and the interests of all who live and work in the countryside are indivisible; nor is it even sensible to draw a line between town and country - they are increasingly interdependent. We all breathe the same air and we all share the same environment.

We must learn to satisfy our material aspirations without destroying the world in which we live. We must not pillage our children's tomorrow for our comforts today.

The creation of a new Government Department, The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, has raised expectations: that action will be swift; that the fresh approach so urgently needed may be within reach.

To be of any practical help, Labour must understand and embrace the totality of the challenge facing the environment. This means more than changing the nameplate outside the old MAFF headquarters. It means a change in culture.

It also means real joined up thinking. But what have we got?

What has been created is a Department for the Environment, which has no remit in our cities; no say in planning; and nothing to do with the threat of massive Greenfield development. It's as though Labour think that the environment only starts at the edge of town, or exists only in national parks.

Transport issues - congestion, road building or widening, rural bus services, future airport capacity and air pollution - collectively have massive implications for the environment and the quality of life. Yet different Ministers in another Department are now handling transport.

DEFRA is also the Department of Food. Restoring confidence in our food after the problems of recent years should be an important priority for this Department. But the Food Standards Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service are now accountable to Health Ministers.

Only Labour could have created a Department of Food with no teeth. No wonder that in Labour circles, they're already calling it 'Death Row.'

What's the point of setting up a Commission on the future of food and farming that doesn't include the National Farmers Union, the CLA, the CPRE, or the Friends of the Earth? If Labour are not prepared to engage in an informed debate about the future of rural Britain, then I tell you, we are.

As Conservatives, we instinctively feel that the best thing for Government to do is to get out of the way.

But there is a legitimate role for Government. That is to provide leadership. At the moment, Government hands out orders, makes demands, and acts as an enforcer.

Leadership is different. It means offering encouragement and advice; it means working with people to identify problems and reach solutions; it means taking decisions and taking action.

It means - too - recognising when Government should intervene and when it should get out of the way.

Leadership means doing, not just talking.

The environment is a great example of where there is too much talk and not enough done.

But Iain has already shown the way: "conservation and the environment", he said, "should be the most natural political territory for Conservatives."

What happens to our environment is fundamental to our beliefs because it is fundamental to the quality of all our lives.

While politicians dither, people are showing that they care about the environment; millions of families take the trouble to recycle their waste. Every mother wants to know that the air we breathe is safe for her children.

As we heave out the rubbish bags each week, we know that we produce too much waste. Every household dumps one and a quarter tonnes of rubbish each year. Try to picture this. It's the same as ushering a rhinoceros out of your front door. No wonder the bags feel heavy.

We will be pushing for effective international action to cut wasteful packaging on consumer goods. But we also plan to help households to do what they already want to do by enabling local councils to collect recyclables from every doorstep.

We will apply the old Conservative principle of enabling people to promote, and live by, their own values; values that stem not from some ideology but from the way we lead our lives.

There are sceptics, I know. I know that when it comes to the environment that there are people who say 'why bother? It's not my problem.' There were those who didn't think that building on greenfield sites would increase the danger of flooding; there were those who didn't believe that intensive fishing would lead to a crisis in fish stocks. Now there are those that do not believe that global warming exists.

It would be easy to do nothing.

There are people, scientists, who think it's all nonsense; who explain away the floods which last winter brought misery to thousands of homes in Britain; who say that the hole in the ozone layer will go away; that climate change isn't happening; that drought and famine in the developing world have nothing to do with our treatment of the environment.

Others say that in the last thirty years the ice in the Arctic has shrunk by 40 per cent. Maybe this has nothing to do with global warming; or maybe it has.

Only a few days ago, thousands of people in Norfolk were evacuated from their homes because the North Sea threatened to sweep them away. Maybe this has nothing to do with the rising sea levels or maybe it has.

The question is: how big a risk are we willing to take?

A week may be a long time in politics but a thousand years is a short time in the life of our planet. It is time for politicians to lift their horizons. If we fail to act now, we risk bequeathing a poisoned legacy to our children.

One way to conserve our resources is to harness new technology. Renewable energy will play a greater role in all our lives in the years to come. With the right incentives, more and more households will transform the way they power their homes by embracing this new technology. With the right approach from Government, energy companies will seize these opportunities, and in doing so, they will be tapping into a major growth market for British enterprise and British jobs. Britain has the capacity to generate 30 per cent of all the renewable energy needs of the European Union. It is a matter of shame that at present only 3 per cent of our own energy consumption comes from renewables. I hate to see us falling behind when we have the skills and technology to take a lead.

We recognise that our responsibilities do not stop at home. We in the developed world have a duty to the poorest countries. It is they that will suffer most from the effects of our complacency. The Kyoto protocol provides for the transfer of technology to developing countries to help them meet the challenges of climate change. By themselves protocols achieve nothing; it is time for action. A sustainable world environment will mean a more secure world.

So: we've debated the problems, and we have shown we understand them. We know that the answers won't be easy; and we know that there isn't much time.

We know, too, that Labour has utterly failed, and we know that the Liberal Democrats will say anything and do nothing. We know that they have one answer on the side of the hedge and another in the next-door field. We will take them on wherever we find them lurking; and we will expose them for the shallow opportunists that we know them to be.

It falls to us then; to this Party; to everyone in this hall, to provide the leadership, the ideas, the inspiration, and the work to save our countryside from ruin and to create a wider environment we can be proud to pass on to our children.

I am passionate about our rural way of life, and I am passionate about our environment, as we all must be. Because this is one we cannot afford to lose.

After Iain had given me this task, I went home and pulled out a favourite book. Writing 80 years ago, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney expressed the special feeling which so many of us have about the countryside:

"Something in the air or light cannot or will not forget the past ages of her, and the toil which made her."

But he conjured, too, a depressing vision:

"They will walk there, the sons of our great grandsons, and will know no reason for the old love of the land. There will be no tiny bent-browed houses in the Twilight to watch, nor small shops of multi-miscellany. The respectable and red brick will rule all."

Well, while there's still time, we're here, the Conservatives are here, to fashion a living countryside and an Earth we can pass onto our children with pride."

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