There was anger at the former Environment Secretary during the floods earlier this year. Photo: Getty
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Badgers may cheer at Owen Paterson's exit, but we shouldn't disregard his achievements

The outgoing Environment Secretary may be an environmentalist's nightmare, but he wasn't all bad.

A white, middle-aged, country man who nevertheless forgot to take his wellies to a flood zone a stone’s throw from one of his infamous badger cull areas, now finds himself culled. Is this how we should remember the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, September 2012 - July 2014?

Paterson’s appointment to Defra was popular with farmers and landowners because he was seen as one of their own: MP for that most rural of constituencies North Shropshire, and a leading figure in the European tannery trade. Defra was badly in need of a safe pair of hands after Caroline Spelman’s disastrous attempt to privatise the Forestry Commission. Moving across from the Northern Ireland brief, Paterson was to prove an able choice in this regard.

That is not to say the Defra tractor ploughed a steady course during his tenure. As well as leaving his boots behind for his slow-off-the mark visit to the flooded Somerset Levels, Paterson persevered to push through two hotly contested badger cull trials. This will perhaps be remembered as his most controversial act – but Paterson should also be remembered as the opposition spokesman who tabled more than 600 questions to Defra on badger control in a quest to understand the issue properly. On this issue Paterson clearly believed that he had the best interests of the dairy farming industry at heart.

He was also a passionate advocate of GM crops and technology, highlighting the problems of potato blight in his speech to the NFU in 2013 – preferring the prospects of GM spuds to repeated applications of pesticide. Paterson also espoused a strong interest in new farming technology, although major funding in this area come from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills rather than Defra. The horsemeat scandal rattled confidence in the meat supply chain but Paterson could claim that the UK was one of the first EU members to raise concerns, and one legacy of this has been an increased interest in the provenance of meat.

It was also Paterson who commissioned David Fursden, former president of the Country Land and Business Association, to lead the Future of Farming Review, with a view to easing the way for new entrants into an industry characterised by an ageing workforce.

So very much an industry man? The environmental lobby seems to be sighing with relief at the departure of the climate change sceptic, who was rumoured to forbid departmental officials from using the phrase “ecosystem services” in his presence. But this is perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of Paterson’s short tenure.

Here was an environment secretary who was credible with farmers and industry, and his reluctance to square up to the implications of climate change for farming and the rural economy represents a failure of leadership of environmental and farming interests. He is not without environmental credentials – witness his work with the sea fishing industry on conservation of stocks and the impact of the European fisheries policy – and serious engagement with the long-term implications of climate change would have been a compelling legacy.

Defra is without doubt a complex brief and Paterson was in the post for less than two years. Nowhere is this complexity more challenging than Common Agricultural Policy reform, and Patterson’s incumbency coincided with a particularly demanding period of CAP reform. An important legacy will be the CAP modulation rate for England he announced last December: modulation is Euro-speak for the proportion of CAP money which is channelled away from direct payments to farmers and into environmental schemes. Farmers had begged for 9% on the grounds that a rate any higher would ruin them, while environmental advocates such as the RSPB pressed for 15% as better use of public money in the countryside. The Paterson answer was a straight-down-the-middle 12%, with a promise to review it (upwards) in a year or two.

That task will now fall to his successor Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, freshly arrived at Defra from the Department for Education. Considering the importance of irrigation to her farming constituents in East Anglia (Britain’s driest region), Truss should also be well equipped to pick up the remaining work on Defra’s groundwater abstraction consultation.

Let us hope that Truss is given a reasonable few years to make a go of her new brief at Defra before she too, in the words of her famous namesake, “eats shoots and leaves”.

The Conversation

Charles Cowap is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, and non-executive Director of Management Development Services Ltd. He works as a rural specialist and land consultant for various companies and on various projects developing ecosystem service approaches, and providing training.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”