Camilla Swift speaks to Conservative MP Robert Goodwill, who is working with the Countryside Alliance to ensure rural interests are promoted and protected in parliament.
As a farmer, an MP for a rural constituency and a vocal supporter of rural people and their way of life, Robert Goodwill would appear to be the perfect candidate to work alongside the Countryside Alliance. He has supported the organisation throughout his parliamentary career: “I’ve been on two demonstrations in my entire life,” he says. “One was the countryside march, and the other was a pro-democracy march in Minsk in Belarus – so two things I feel very strongly about.”
He will shortly be working closely with the Countryside Alliance, making sure that MPs – particularly those in rural constituencies – are thoroughly and correctly briefed on rural issues, so they are able to both promote and protect rural interests. “It’ll be about coordinating engagement between parliament in general – and the Conservative Party in particular – and the Countryside Alliance, and ensuring that we can try and keep on the same page. Then where issues come up, we can feed in both directions: we can feed in to the Alliance, and they can brief us in the other direction.”
Not only is Goodwill a rural MP, having held the constituency of Scarborough and Whitby since 2005, but he is also a countryside man, having studied agriculture at Newcastle University after growing up on the family farm near Malton, which he now farms. He talks of how his family is “hefted” to his part of Yorkshire. “My forebear John Goodwill died in 1820 and is buried in the churchyard here; he was the farm manager for the Earl of Carlisle on the Castle Howard estate,” he explains. “We got a tenancy in 1850 on the Castle Howard estate, and then bought the farm from the estate in 1963.” He has also served as a Defra minister, and has been both transport and education minister in the course of his career.
He hopes that with the help of various colleagues in the commons, he can make sure that MPs are well-informed on rural issues – and put a stop to incorrect arguments being deployed, something he finds hugely frustrating. “Often you get people trotting out the same old arguments which don’t bear any scrutiny by anyone who understands the issues, or indeed anyone who’s looked at the research on land management issues,” he explains. “There is a lack of insight and knowledge among many MPs, particularly urban ones, to what makes the countryside tick. So our primary role is to ensure that when that pseudo-science is deployed, we can counter that and make the case for the countryside and reinforce the fact that countryside sports are an integral part of maintaining that countryside.”
Goodwill’s political career has already overlapped in certain ways with the work of the Countryside Alliance; most recently he tabled two amendments to the Game Act in relation to illegal hare coursing. “One will increase the maximum fine for those who are engaged in illegal coursing, and the other basically gives the police powers to seize dogs and recoup the cost of doing so,” he explains. “These are just two very practical amendments which I hope the government will look at, and which bring the penalties for this type of activity in line with those under the Hunting Act.”
When we speak it is a few days before the driven grouse-shooting debate in parliament – a repeat of the debate previously held in 2016. With his constituency incorporating parts of the North Yorkshire Moors, upland issues are very much part and parcel of his brief, and something he cares strongly about. “We have a great challenge in just deploying facts and information to reinforce the points that we make,” he explains. “The other problem is that there are people who will deliberately trot out misinformation because it supports their argument. That would apply particularly to the way that grouse moors are managed, and the fact that people have latched on to the idea of ‘we’re going to stop rotational burning because that will help peat deposition’, without really understanding the difference between blanket bog and dry heathland moorland, and not understanding the risk of wildfires.” He is unsure whether he’ll get the chance to speak in the debate but hopes he will get the chance to make the same points again. “If that moorland management wasn’t done, not only would we lose species that thrive in the managed upland environments like lapwing, plover and the hen harriers, but we probably wouldn’t get a great deal more peat either, because either we’d have more wildfire problems or, as I’ve seen on other moors where they’ve not been properly managed, they just revert to scrub and trees.”
His frustration with the burning debate and many other similar rural issues is that so often data and science is ignored. “The problem is that there are people who are against shooting fundamentally – and that is an opinion that people are perfectly entitled to hold,” he says. “What annoys me is that they then try to deploy arguments based on science and ecology which just don’t bear any scrutiny from anyone who’s done any research into the matter, or more particularly anyone who’s spent decades managing the moorland.”
Shooting, however, isn’t something Goodwill has much time to do himself. “My passion is my steam engines; I’m a big steam ploughing fan, so that takes up most of my free time, and I don’t really get much time to go shooting. I do occasionally have to go and frighten some pigeons – so my shooting activity is pretty much confined to frightening pigeons on oil seed rape!”
It isn’t just on the topic of moorland management that he feels facts are being ignored. As a farmer himself, the new environmental land management schemes being introduced by Defra are something that he has been paying close attention to. “What I wouldn’t want to see with the new changes is large areas of productive agricultural land basically being abandoned, as in some cases people see rewilding as just leaving the land, with no management plan. We need to see a real attempt being made to manage land for specific species which may be under threat – the hedgehog, for example.”
As with moorland management, the new schemes need to be constructed in an intelligent way. “Anything that Defra incentivises in terms of environmental land management needs to have scientific backing,” he says, and is disappointed that some trials have been disrupted by the Covid pandemic. “I’m not sure in some cases that we have enough data on which to base what we want to incentivise people to do. Having said that, there is some low hanging fruit; incentivising the planting of hedges through grants and compensating for maintaining them, for example. But we need to ensure that the new schemes are delivered in a way that dovetails with some of the traditional ways that land is managed.”
Goodwill understands the concerns that some people might have over the government’s new rural proposals, but he is convinced that the Conservatives have the right idea. “The vast majority of my Conservative colleagues who represent rural areas understand absolutely how the countryside works, and what makes it tick.
“One hundred per cent the Conservative Party is still the party of the countryside. We do of course have urban members who might not understand or share our views – some with very small majorities do worry if they get 100 emails from the League Against Cruel Sports, for example. And that’s where our job role lies, in spreading information and facts to combat misinformation.”
This article was first published in the Summer 2021 issue of My Countryside magazine.