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Nick Herbert: We will be a green Government

Ladies and gentlemen. The video you’ve just seen is about ‘Future Countryside’, an initiative which I launched this summer. It highlights pressing challenges facing the natural world. We’ve just heard from Greg Clark how we’re going to reduce carbon emissions. But the reality is that temperatures are ­already rising. We’re already seeing the effects on our eco-systems. Sea levels are rising. Wildlife is being forced out of natural habitats. Rivers are drying up. Species are being lost. We need to adapt to these changes. Both to protect ourselves with measures like better flood defences. And to protect the natural world. But these problems won’t be solved by old thinking.

The Left see going green as the chance to turn Britain red, with more regulation, more power for the State. There’s a place for green laws – and many of the best have been Tory. Cleaning our rivers, improving air quality. But today’s environmental challenges are complex. Yes, we mind about water quality ... but we’re also concerned about whether there’s water at all. To meet these challenges, we can’t just say ‘stop’. We need to ­start ... Start conserving water ... Start creating habitats for wildlife ... Start rewarding households for recycling rather than bullying them with bin taxes.

So we’ve been exploring bold ideas like conservation credits to encourage new investment in habitats. Many of these conservation challenges reach beyond our borders. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has been an environmental disaster. Fish stocks are now seriously depleted. We need to conserve our marine environment ... and give our fishing communities a secure future. The time for fundamental reform of this fisheries policy is long overdue. The international trade in products from endangered species is a disgrace, and we must do more to stop it. Straight after this conference, I’m travelling to northern India to witness the impact of this traffic on animals like the Indian Tiger. I’ll be seeing one species of rhinoceros where fewer than 3,000 animals survive. We have a moral obligation to address these issues. Unless we alter course, in just twenty years’ time, the combination of climate change, population growth and water shortages will mean that the world will no longer be able to feed itself.

In the West we’ve forgotten about the importance of food security. But if you go to the Imperial War Museum here in Manchester you will see wartime posters which remind us of a time when food was in desperately short supply. Our grandparents couldn’t take food security for granted. We must never forget that agriculture is a primary industry .. It puts food on our tables  ... and farmers manage the countryside we love. If we devalue British farming, then we are devaluing Britain. Labour’s short-sighted policy is that it doesn’t matter where our food comes from. As a result, we’ve seen food imports rise, and our own production fall. We’ve passed laws to improve farm animal welfare in this country ...  and then watched as our own producers go out of business ... while we import food produced to lower welfare standards ... and passed off as British. This is wrong. Misleading labelling lets down our farmers ... it undermines animal welfare ... it defrauds the public ... and it’s got to stop. That’s why, earlier this year, we launched the Honest Food Campaign. Conservatives believe in free trade. We wouldn’t want to restrict imports even if it were legal to do so. After all, our own farmers have important export markets. But real consumer choice requires real information. The Honest Food Campaign identified countless misleading supermarket labels. Chicken dinners which said they were “produced in the UK” when the meat came from Thailand. The Government refused to act ... but we warned we would legislate. And our message convinced the supermarkets to change. One by one, Waitrose, M&S, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s supported our campaign. Now Tesco have signed up too ... and they’ll re-label more than 1,000 of their meat products. That’s social responsibility in action. The Honest Food Campaign has achieved in Opposition what Labour failed to achieve in a decade of government. But we want to go further.

Every year the public sector spends over £2 billion on food. But not a single rasher of bacon served to our Armed Forces is British. The Treasury buys barely half of its food from Britain. Downing Street doesn’t even know how much of its food comes from this country. I suppose that’s no surprise. Labour’s failure to back local produce is shameful. Government should lead by example. So today, I’m announcing that under a Conservative Government, all Whitehall departments will be required to procure food that meets British standards of production. This policy will be enforced wherever it can be achieved without increasing overall costs. And all the evidence is that local food needn’t cost more – in fact, it often leads to savings. We don’t want to stop there. We want to see hospitals, schools and local authorities buying food sustainably. So Zac Goldsmith will lead a new advisory group to look at how we can extend our policy across the public sector. We’re taking this action because we care about local food and we care about the countryside. If only the same could be said of this Government.

Our rural communities have suffered a decade of disrespect by Labour. Local services have been withdrawn. Power has been taken away by a remote and arrogant government. More than 1,300 rural post offices have been closed. Hundreds of village schools and police stations have been lost. Country pubs and local shops are still disappearing. Labour just don’t care about the countryside. But we believe in governing for the whole nation ... treating city, town and country with equal respect. So we’ve set out an agenda for rural action. We’ll respect rural people and give them a voice. We’ll return power to rural communities, including the right to build their own affordable homes. We’ll recognise the social value in rural services ... and give parents the power to prevent village schools from closing . And we’ll revive the rural economy with reduced corporation tax for small companies.

Rural areas have immense potential to help deliver sustainable jobs. But we won’t get the rural economy moving again by expanding government. Do you know how many quangos there are under Defra? 67. Can you guess how many staff they employ? Over 26,000.  That’s a third more than WH Smith. Some of what these bodies do is valuable. But who do they answer to? Unaccountable quangos let the Government off the hook when Ministers should be held responsible. Chaos in the Rural Payments Agency cost taxpayers £75 million in EU fines. It plunged farmers into real financial difficulty. Yet no Minister ever accepted personal responsibility. Defra’s quangos duplicate functions. They employ their own lobbyists. And too often they make work and waste money. A few months ago, Natural England advertised for “Health Walks Delivery Officers”. On a salary of up to £32,000 a year. Now, I’m all for walks in the countryside. But we don’t need well paid bureaucrats to tell our chum the Party Chairman that he needs to take more exercise.  Mrs Pickles does that for free. There are too many officials with clipboards running around the country telling people what to do. That’s got to change.

The truth is: the picnic is over. We’ve got to have less red tape. We need more accountability And we must save money. So a Conservative Government won’t duck these decisions. There ­will be fewer rural quangos. Defra’s focus must be on the issues that really matter. Some have urged the Conservative Party to give up on green issues. There’s an economic downturn, they say.  Green politics are for the good times. I believe such views are profoundly wrong. If there’s one thing we have learnt from the last few years, it is that you cannot live beyond your means. We cannot live beyond our economic means. But neither can we live beyond our environmental means. The resources of this planet are no more infinite than the Treasury’s reserves. We must learn to use them sustainably.

Conservatives understand the inherent value of conserving things. We know the importance of securing a better future for successive generations. It is our responsibility to act. To conserve our unique countryside and landscape ... To protect our astonishing wildlife ... To prepare for profound environmental change ... To ensure the survival of the very eco-systems that sustain life. This is not red policy.  It is the deepest blue.  It is about putting others before ourselves. It is thinking about tomorrow, not just today. It is about conserving resources before spending them. It is about encouraging the individual changes which together will make a difference. So don’t be in any doubt: Our green agenda isn’t an optional extra. The environment cannot be an afterthought. Going green is intrinsic to modern conservatism. We are a green party. And we will be a green Government.

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