by David Bean

The Countryside Alliance wrapped up a busy party conference season with a programme of three events in Birmingham at the Conservative Party Conference, which placed the welfare of rural communities high on the new Government's agenda.

Delegates gathered on Monday 10 October to discuss the sustainability of rural communities in an age of shifting patterns of land use to accommodate decarbonisation policies, with a panel comprised of the newly appointed Defra Minister Mark Spencer MP, the News Editor of the Farmers’ Guardian Abi Kay, Sir Bill Wiggin MP, Robbie Moore MP and Sam Hall, the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

Then on Tuesday thoughts turned to electoral politics, with over a hundred delegates gathered to consider how the Conservatives can re-engage its rural base. Tuesday’s panel included the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Sir Robert Goodwill, Fay Jones MP, Greg Smith MP and James Heale, the Diary Editor of the Spectator.

Finally on Tuesday evening the Alliance, in association with the Conservative Rural Forum, was pleased to welcome the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ranil Jayawardena MP, to its annual conference reception.

The events revealed a palpable sense of dissatisfaction among both panellists and delegates with the appropriation of prime agricultural land for afforestation and, above all, solar farming. There was broad agreement that with concern growing over the country’s food security, the assumption should be that such land is used for food production and continues to sustain the communities that have grown around agriculture. The Minister, Mark Spencer, acknowledged the scale of the challenge and the frustration of farmers being told to take land out of the production of food that will only be substituted for by imports, but pointed out that the prominence of food security on the political agenda offers a great opportunity for rural communities. Abi Kay concluded her contributions by exhorting Conservatives to talk more about food.

Green NGOs were criticised for spreading rumours about the Government’s environmental plans that seemed motivated more by a desire to raise funds than to present a realistic picture of how policy is developing. Sir Robert Goodwill raised the example of the social media backlash against the Government for voting against the Duke of Wellington’s amendment to the Environment Bill aimed at reducing sewage overflow into rivers: he argued that Government MPs had been unjustly presented as having voted positively in favour of sewage discharge, when the real intention was to prevent sewage backing up into people’s homes. Mark Spencer reiterated that the Government’s intentions on environmental land management schemes was not, as had been claimed, to scrap them but merely to review its plans to ensure farmers will actually want to take them up.

Fay Jones was in an excellent position to contribute on electoral politics, having won her seat back from the Liberal Democrats 86 days after their victory in a by-election. She argued strongly against complacency, given the growing cleverness of their and Labour’s engagement with rural issues; she said that while levelling up remains hugely important, politicians should realise that rural areas need to be levelled up too. She also advocated a more robust approach with the media in defending livestock farming and especially the red meat sector, challenging ridiculous misrepresentations. Her fellow Countryside Alliance member Greg Smith highlighted hypocrisy on the part of centre-left politicians who talk about valuing rural communities but then attack them in office, such as when the Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats banned meat from council functions as the Alliance highlighted earlier this year.

The Alliance was delighted to take the opportunity of the conference programme to continue its extensive engagement with policymakers and put rural communities in the political spotlight. To support our work, please consider joining the Countryside Alliance today.

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