DEFRA ploughing same furrow

Posted on: 20th May 2011

Originally posted in 2005


DEFRA has a clear vision for our rural areas. Though unstated, I believe that it is to quietly manage the decline of family farming and to bury the news that our rural communities are becoming the exclusive preserve of better off second homeowners and others.

Any prospect for an exciting, ambitious and challenging programme to breathe new life and opportunities into our countryside appears to be absent from the very Government department which should be providing this kind of vision.

On the lack of affordable housing in rural areas, Ministers wring their hands, furrow their brows and use expression of concern but with no action.

Looking at the problem of supermarket dominance of the food supply chain (which is crucifying the future of traditional small family farms in our regions), Ministers have decisively shrugged their shoulders.

And when it comes to facing up to the difficult decisions about how to contain and bear down upon the escalating outbreaks of Bovine TB in our local herds, the department have produced a long-winded strategy which is short on any decisive action.

A General Election victory provides any new Government with an opportunity for a new beginning; a chance to take full advantage of an electoral endorsement so that it can really get to grips with the challenges of the day.

The radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy this year provides the department with a golden opportunity to ensure that the taxpayers money which goes into supporting farming helps those in the most marginal farms, rather than continuing to provide what is, for many in the larger agribusiness holdings, inessential additional income.

The forthcoming British Presidency of the EU could provide the Government with a pivotal role to drive through reforms. The Government could also ensure that those family farmers who really need their Single Farm Payment early in the payment window – a welcome Christmas present rather than a late spring attempt to keep the bailiffs out – can receive it.

It would also give the Government a strong position so that, at the World Trade talks this winter, a strong case can be made for clear labelling and fair import controls to ensure that food brought into this country is sold on the basis of its genuine country of origin and that it has to meet the same food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards which we expect British farmers to meet.

But I suspect that these opportunities will be overlooked.

The mounting evidence of the stranglehold which supermarkets have over farmers at the farm gate seems to have no impact at all on Government Ministers – especially those in DEFRA.

Wouldn’t it reassure farmers if we saw Government Ministers genuinely taking up the cudgels on their behalf, seeking to ensure that there was a Supermarket Code of Practice which guaranteed fair trading throughout the food supply chain and gave farmers and food suppliers a real champion to protect them from late payment, over-riders, improperly returned stock, late contract changes and having to fund promotional campaigns, etc.

There is so much that needs to be done, yet we have a department whose main objective appears to be to keep a cap on bad news stories coming from the countryside and to stand on the sidelines as farmers increasingly struggle to make a living.

On the housing front, the situation is, of course, dire.

Last month I published a report following a survey undertaken amongst local estate agents which shows something which will be of no surprise to many. In my constituency (West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) last year twice as many properties were sold as second homes than to first time buyers. That does not mean to say that there is little demand for first homes amongst the local population. Quite the opposite.

Thousands of local families are living in desperate and unacceptable circumstances. The gap between local incomes and local house prices has now become stratospheric.

The Government must now take radical measures. It has to accept that our planning system – especially in rural areas – is fuelled more by greed than by need. Planning permissions on scarce development sites should not be about turning agricultural land values into windfalls for new millionaires.

There is a great deal that the Government can do and it doesn’t necessarily have to cost the taxpayer dearly. The Government can give local authorities the tools to deliver planning permissions which would be exclusively for local housing need in perpetuity; the construction of a new lower rung on the housing ladder to meet the desperate need for affordable housing for locals.

Shared equity and mutual housing schemes are not new. They can and do work and could be largely privately financed.

Active concern and dynamism is what is required to address these now desperate problems.

We need a Government department which will champion the interests of rural areas. Instead we appear to have a Government department which tinkers with administrative structures, panics if it’s faced with real policy decisions, but which instead attempts to bury bad news and smother ambition.


Andrew George MP 20th May 2005