In Defra, like many other departments, it was more 52-card pickup than a reshuffle, with both Caroline Spelman and Jim Paice leaving the government to be replaced by Owen Paterson and David Heath.
The consequences of asking two new ministers to head a number of labyrinthine policies at a critical time does not bode well for rural communities but, more worryingly, the appointment of our new true blue environment secretary signals the moment that the Tories gave up on even bothering to pretend that they care about the environment at all.
Indeed, in this cabinet of contradictions, instead of having a Secretary of State for the Environment, we have been saddled with a Secretary of State against the Environment who fails to see that sustainability is the ally of growth, not the enemy. Recently Conservative Home handily packaged Owen Paterson’s plan for economic growth into three points:
- “Exemption of all micro-businesses from red tape, following the model Ronald Reagan pursued in the early 1980s;
- Ending of all energy subsidies and then fast-tracked exploitation of shale gas;
- Urgent review of airport policy to ensure Britain gets its full share of global trade.”
This fetishisation of growth at all costs means that sustainability may very well be a mere footnote (if even that) at a critical time for rural communities. Given that reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is nearing finalisation, fairer contracts for milk producers are cresting the horizon and a sweeping review of the EU’s fisheries policy is on the way, the actions of our new Defra team will alter the very fabric of rural areas for years to come.
With these responsibilities bearing down on the new ministers, certainly now is not the time to shift towards a policy of farming against the environment, when in fact, we should be farming for the environment.
As MP for North Shropshire, Paterson has also been a brutal opponent of wind farms, and at a time when energy bills have more than doubled in the past eight years, to suggest that we move away from energy subsidies and renewable technology is, to be blunt, staggering.
Paterson’s strong views on hunting have also made media headlines, possibly marking a return to rural communities only ever being debated politically through the sphere of either foxes or badgers, hopelessly neglecting the criminal lack of affordable housing, soaring youth unemployment in rural areas and public transport that is, at best, as complex as the plot of Inception and at worst, non-existent.
Looking at the above evidence, it’s all too easy to sink into despair, but the Labour party is there to make hope possible, not despair convincing, and from these titanic challenges to the environmental cause, come great opportunities for our shadow Defra frontbench to fight for our rural communities.
Whilst there are always those who are intent on moving backwards, there will always be those fighting for change and by highlighting the coalition’s regressive ideology whilst offering a vision of opportunity for rural areas, rural arguments will become Labour arguments.
We must offer a radical redesign of the agricultural economy which shifts food production to the very nucleus of our society.
We must provide a vision that puts conservation at the core of our food policy and allows agriculture to invest in technology at the very limits of human ingenuity.
And we must support our rural communities through pro-active policy on housing, transport and retirement, ensuring that young farmers have the opportunity to turn their passion into progress as well.
By pitting growth against sustainability, we have seen this government re-affirm its commitment to the politics of division, but the politics of conflict are not the politics of change. And despite being in opposition, we cannot stand idly by and watch this scorched earth policy take hold. The Labour party without the will to act is nothing and so we must act boldly to defend sustainability, defend conservation and defend our rural communities from the deepest of coalition attacks.
Even though the stench of fossil fuel now billows out of this government’s every pore and the environment has been unceremoniously dumped from their priorities, the cause must endure, the work must go on and we must continue to fight for an economy that instead of pushing against the environment, embraces it.