Owen Paterson: Green shoots of growth from rural Britain

THE rural economy is worth £211bn a year. Rural areas are home to one fifth of the English population, yet they support nearly a third of England’s businesses.

That’s around half a million businesses and we need to get the conditions right for all these businesses to thrive.

One of the most important sectors of the rural economy is food and drink. This sector supports 3.7 million jobs and contributes nearly £90bn a year to the UK economy. We’re working hard to make sure that food and drink businesses have a wide range of opportunities to expand.

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That’s why I’ve been going abroad banging the drum for British products. The aim of all these trade missions is to help businesses make the most of all the available opportunities and to capitalise on the growing demand for high-quality British food.

As well as promoting exports, we need to make a significant dent in the 22 per cent of food that’s imported but could be produced here. I recently hosted a meeting with farmers, manufacturers and retailers to discuss this. We’re now looking at how we can work with the industry to make it easier for businesses to grow in the UK market.

I believe that local government has a huge part to play in supporting, and benefitting from, this agenda. The Cornwall Food Programme, which supplies the county’s hospitals, is a great example. They have increased the amount of fresh, local food they use. This has boosted the local economy, reduced environmental impacts and improved the quality. These improvements have been made with no additional cost.

Imagine the impact if every school, care home and leisure centre were buying from their local area.

It is our job in Government to make sure that businesses can take advantage of these opportunities. They need to be able to communicate quickly and reliably. I share the frustration that many rural communities and businesses do not yet have access to reliable and fast broadband.

In my first week in the job, I visited an old barn at the top of a Cumbrian fell. I was amazed to find an architects’ business designing golfing villas for Nasiriyah in Iraq. That’s the transformative power of broadband.

We also need to address poor mobile phone coverage. The current situation is beyond dire. Improving broadband and mobile access isn’t just about supporting businesses. It’s key for rural communities and improving resident access. It will enable central and local government to deliver services, such as healthcare, education and community care, more efficiently and directly.

I also see my role as getting out of people’s hair. We are making steady reductions to the amount of regulation that all businesses face as part of the Red Tape Challenge.

Turning to the future, my department is working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to look at the impact of wind farms and other energy infrastructure on the environment and rural economy.

For too long we have allowed the lazy assumption that the environment and growth are incompatible objectives within the planning system. I believe that in many cases it is possible to have both.

This is why I am particularly interested in biodiversity offsetting. The purpose of offsetting is to ensure that where the planning system requires compensation for biodiversity loss, it is delivered in a fair and effective way.

Offsetting gives us a chance to improve the way our planning system works. It gets round the long-running conundrum of how to grow the economy at the same time as improving the environment. The concept has been around for some time now. I’ve seen it working well in Australia. And we can learn from other countries such as the United States and Germany.

There are amazing opportunities available to rural businesses and communities. My role is to make sure that the conditions exist for people to take advantage of them.

• Owen Paterson is the Environment Secretary. This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the Local Government Association Rural Conference.