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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.