Andrea Leadsom: Why the rural economy matters

Environment Secretary Andrea leadsom inspects the Foss Barrier in York.
Environment Secretary Andrea leadsom inspects the Foss Barrier in York.
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BUILDING resilience is key to the success of the rural economy – and nowhere more so than in protecting our communities from the impacts of increasingly extreme weather.

None of us will forget the harrowing images of last winter’s floods and, as I saw for myself last week in York and Leeds, the devastation caused to communities.

The maintenance and improvement of flood defences across the whole country is crucial. That’s why we are spending a record £2.5bn on 1,500 schemes, which will better protect 300,000 homes. We’ll also be investing £1bn in flood maintenance over the course of this Parliament. And learning the lessons of last winter, we’re quadrupling the amount of temporary flood barriers at our disposal and making our critical infrastructure more resilient.

The rural economy generates over £100bn a year and employs one in eight of us. It is, in fact, our biggest manufacturing sector, bigger than the car and aerospace industries combined.

The Great British brand is stronger than ever and known throughout the world for its quality, innovation and tradition. Our farmers are world leaders in animal welfare, food safety and food traceability – something we should all be proud of. And our fishermen brave the seas in all weathers to land the finest fish.

Whether it’s English chocolate, Scotch whisky, Welsh lamb or Northern Irish beef, people everywhere want to buy our products. Last year, we exported more than £18bn worth of food and drink. And in the first half of this year, exports are up by six per cent and growing strongly.

Only last month, the French voted British lamb their product of the year – one small example of how international trade is at the heart of our economy.

Thanks to that momentous day in June, there is no doubt we now have a superb opportunity to establish new trading relationships right across the globe. It is a chance to reassert ourselves as the great, outward-looking, trading nation we’ve always been.

At the beginning of this year we launched our Great British Food Unit to promote our food and drink worldwide. We’re selling coffee to Brazil, sparkling wine to France and naan bread to India. And now we have a Department for International Trade to further develop our trade and export opportunities.

Our ambition for the industry will be reflected in our 25 Year Plan for food and farming, setting out how we can grow more, buy more and sell more British food. And where there are challenges, we’re determined to address these, working with the farming industry to boost its resilience to low prices, to market volatility and to animal and plant disease.

Unlike Labour, we won’t walk away from the battle against bovine TB. And, as we prepare to leave the EU, it’s crucial we provide our farmers with certainty and continuity. It’s really important that we have been able to confirm the same level of agricultural support until 2020. And that we’ll honour all environmental agreements signed before the Autumn Statement for their lifetime, even if they run beyond our departure from the EU.

Our farmers, fishermen and food producers have a proud heritage. I am convinced that they have an even brighter future outside the EU.

Now, those with good memories amongst us will remember Mrs Thatcher’s speech to Party Conference nearly 30 years ago. In it, she said: “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a 
full repairing lease.” I couldn’t agree more.

Today, we continue to lead on the environment, committing to being the first generation to leave it in a better state than we found it. Many are lucky that their children can just step outside 
to enjoy the outdoors – but fortune or luck should have nothing to do with it.

It is pretty shocking that 
in the past year one in nine children hasn’t visited a single green space. Yet we know two thirds of people live within 30 minutes of a National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Our plans set out how we 
want to engage children at every stage of their education, introducing them to the wonder of the great outdoors. And 
as part of our manifesto commitment to plant 11 million trees by 2020, we’re working with the Woodland Trust 
to get more trees into school grounds.

We’re also making great progress on the English Coastal Path – a 3,000 mile footpath extending around the entire English coastline.

I want everyone, whatever their background, wherever they live, to have access to a clean and healthy environment.

This is just the start of our ambition. There is much more to do, but I’m determined that we will continue to champion our countryside and our environment. I believe our best days lie ahead of us.

Andrea Leadsom is the Environment Secretary. This is an edited version of her Tory conference speech.