by Tim Bonner

Liz Truss’s elevation to Prime Minister means that, for the first time, the incumbent of 10 Downing Street is a former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She also represents a rural constituency so we can be confident that rural issues will not be ignored, despite the many other pressing items on the government’s agenda.

The Prime Minister has appointed Ranil Jayawardena as her Defra Secretary, and Mark Spencer as Minister of State in the department. Ranil Jayawardena has represented rural North East Hampshire since 2015 and was Minister for International Trade between 2020 and 2022. Mark Spencer is a farmer from Nottinghamshire who was first elected as the MP for Sherwood in 2010 and was previously Chief Whip.

We look forward to working with both of them and the other Defra Ministers who are likely to be announced today. Defra has an immediate challenge in addressing the challenges facing the rural community - and the country as a whole - as a result of Russia’s monstrous assault on Ukraine, not least the looming rural cost of living crisis and challenges to Britain’s food supply. It must not be forgotten, however, that long before Russian tanks started rolling into Ukraine, Defra was wrestling with policies which will introduce generational change for farming and the countryside. There are critical debates being played out within Defra on animal welfare, wildlife management, climate change and biodiversity restoration which will shape the future of rural communities. From the Kept Animals Bill to the future of farm support, the legislative and policy agenda on Ranil Jayawardena’s desk is of huge importance to those who live in and shape the countryside.

In very broad terms, the Secretary of State should be asking himself two questions as he works his way through this list. The first is whether any individual policy actually delivers a practical benefit or whether it was the result of an ‘eye catching’ announcement, which has subsequently hung like an albatross around his predecessors’ necks. Especially in relation to some animal welfare and wildlife management legislation there has been too much concern about pandering to perceived public sensibilities and too little about the practical reality of rural life. It is too late for legislation such as the Animal Sentience Act, but there has been other legislation proposed, but not yet passed, which needs very careful scrutiny.

The second question he should ask himself, especially in relation to agricultural and environmental legislation, is whether each and every Defra proposal starts from the understanding that the rural community is the solution to the challenges of global warming and bio-diversity decline, not the problem. Far too many people in government departments and agencies, and even a few with significant influence in government itself, have signed up to the misanthropic creed that human intervention is always negative, and that the only way of addressing environmental challenges is by removing farmers and land managers from the countryside. This nonsense must be challenged and a clear policy direction established that a managed countryside, albeit one which will clearly need to change significantly, is the only solution to reducing carbon emissions, restoring wildlife and continuing to feed the nation.

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