The elevation of ‘green’ issues up the political agenda can only strengthen the case for sustainable long-term funding to protect food production, according to Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
Following a meeting with a group of farmers in Yorkshire, Mr Gove told The Yorkshire Post that he believes the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) deserves greater financial clout to improve the productivity of rural Britain.
He suggested that a growing environmental agenda, as the Government drives forward climate change mitigation measures, is also a case for backing farming.
The recent securing of Treasury funds to settle years of unpaid environmental scheme payments this month is proof that Defra can make a compelling case for public money, he said.
“There are some people who say Defra has gone a little too ‘greeny’ or Friends of the Earth... the more the environment rises up the political agenda, the more difficult it is for the Treasury to say we are taking money away from Defra,” Mr Gove told farmers. “We won’t win every argument with the Treasury but I think there has been a significant movement and I think it will continue under whoever the new Prime Minister is.”
Mr Gove met a group of about 30 farmers, alongside Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake, on a visit to the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus at Sand Hutton near York.
He said he wanted to assure farmers that the direction of future government policy outside of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was “locked on”, with both Conservative Party leadership candidates – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt – endorsing “the broad approach we are taking”.
The Government has pledged to protect current CAP funding, worth £3bn to British farmers, until the end of the current Parliament in 2022. Asked whether he believed that budget should be protected longer-term, Mr Gove said: “I actually think that within reason the Defra budget should increase. We are one of the least well-funded Government departments.
“And I think that we absolutely need to protect the amount of money we give to farming until 2022, that is a manifesto guarantee, but actually, farmers and those who manage our landscapes do so much to enhance our environment, and particularly as we are thinking about promoting our path towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050... I think we need to make sure we spend public money effectively to enhance the environment.”
The Minister added: “Without putting a figure on it, I think that we do need to spend more on our environment and on our rural areas and I say both in terms of improving productivity in farming but also in terms of improving the productivity of rural Britain.”
According to the result of a recent poll by the Countryside Alliance, only 30 per cent of people believe the Conservative Party understands rural Britain.
Mr Gove admitted he was concerned about those findings and said the Government has work to do.
“It’s absolutely critical in the months and years ahead that we make sure that the specific concerns of rural Britain, on everything from infrastructure through to local transport, through to the vitality of town and village high streets, through to productivity and indeed skills and education... all of these things need to be at the centre of what any government does.”
He said he hoped to “say a bit more in the next couple of weeks” about what the Government can do to ensure that communities that have “legitimately felt overlooked” will feel that their interests are being properly reflected at the heart of government.