The countryside has stormy times ahead

It’s been a turbulent time for farming and countryside politics. Defra had its budget cut by nearly 10% (£37 million) in the Spending Review, horrifying conservationists, and the UK’s role in the latest round of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform has elicited furious criticism from the NFU. Then, at the CPRE‘s AGM, president Sir Andrew Motion slated Coalition Ministers, saying: ‘The countryside is in greater danger than it has ever been in my lifetime.’

Natural England has quietly emerged a winner. Once on shaky ground under the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ proposals, Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson has confirmed that it and the Environment Agency will be retained as separate bodies. However, both have to improve the consistency of their advice, reduce red tape, be more ‘pragmatic’ in the way that they deal with customers and build up a ‘yes if’ culture.

Also on the positive side, a provision in the Water Bill will make flood insurance affordable in high-risk areas and new measures have been announced to help bees.

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Unimpressed with CAP plans

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Mr Paterson admits to disappointment over new CAP plans. ‘Some member states have been pressing to take CAP back to the dark days of butter mountains and wine lakes,’ he reports. ‘I have resisted this every step of the way. That’s why Germany and the UK were unable to support one of the regulations that manages the EU food and agriculture market.

British shoppers should not have to pay twice for the CAP-once through their taxes and again at the tills.’ NFU president Peter Kendall counters that English farmers will be at a disadvantage. ‘Defra can choose to cut our payments by up to 15% on top of all the other cuts we know are coming. They also have powers to opt out of standard European rules on “Greening”.

The UK Government is alone in Europe by thinking that doggedly following the free-market ideology of cutting payments and ratcheting up environmental standards will help our farmers compete.’ The RSPB and National Trust are dismayed at the watering down of environmental requirements. The Trust’s Patrick Begg says it feels like ‘a backward step’ and that Mr Paterson should show leadership by raising the bar in agri-environment schemes.

Poet takes on politicians

Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, says the Planning Minister Nick Boles ‘leapfrogs brownfield sites and lands with a bricky crunch in the open countryside’ and he also disagrees with Michael Gove on the matter of social mobility: ‘Building housing estates on open countryside is terrible for social mobility-it puts people further away from jobs.’

He compares ministers unfavourably with Harold Macmillan, who, as Housing Minister in 1954, told the CPRE: ‘Planning has now become respectable. There is a general acceptance that in so small an island one cannot allow the complete individual freedom which might have been possible in more primitive days.’ Sir Andrew says: ‘It seems we must fight the battle all over again.’ He proposes a nationwide project to identify brownfield sites most suitable for regeneration.

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