Changes ahead at DEFRA?

It has been a messy few weeks in politics. That’s for sure. The uncertainty that Brexit has brought about seems to have turned everything that we previously knew upside down and despite people like Tim Worstall remaining blindly optimistic about the future of food in this country (see especially his comments on a recent Food Programme episode), his view is certainly not shared by all, least of all by many small farmers and environmentalists. Tomorrow we will have a new Prime Minister which will at least complete one aspect of the jigsaw. Political commentators have much to say about Mrs May, some good, some bad, but one of the questions on everybody’s lips is how will she shake up the cabinet? John Rentoul wrote an interesting article in the Independent yesterday, laying out some predictions for who will keep their job, who will lose it and which Brexiteers will be given new or key posts. Of particular interest for those in the countryside and those involved in the food sector more broadly is who will be leading the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Personally, I agree with Rentoul that Liz Truss will no longer be in post at DEFRA before very long. DEFRA will be affected more than most by the Brexit implications and so, frustratingly from my point of view, I predict a Brexiteer being in charge at 17, Smith Square. This could be Andrea Leadsom, as Rentoul predicts. It could however also be ex-environment secretary Owen Paterson, who was a central character in the Brexit campaign. Either way I predict a new environmental and food framework that is driven by Adam Smith economics, aims to cut environmental ‘red tape’ as much as possible and leaves the countryside at greater risk of development driven by short term thinking. Here speaks the pessimist in me – and regular readers of this blog will know that I am trying to take an optimistic view when it comes to the future. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to be optimistic when assessing the field of candidates who may soon be heading up DEFRA. I somehow doubt that former editor of the Ecologist and former London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith will be in with a chance. Whoever takes DEFRA on (assuming Liz Truss even loses her role) will face an enormous job and will face greater scrutiny than any previous DEFRA secretary. They will need to forge a good relationship with whoever becomes Brexit minister/secretary and work closely with both farming organisations and environmental/conservation organisations. They must remain committed to ‘business as usual’, such as generating the ’25 year environment plan‘ and fight for DEFRA’s place as a key department in government, not a quiet backwater seen by MPs as a training post for future more prominent roles.

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2 thoughts on “Changes ahead at DEFRA?

  1. […] As predicted, it’s all change at Defra as former Conservative leadership hopeful Andrea Leadsom takes the helm from Liz Truss, who has moved to Justice. Social media was full of opinion yesterday afternoon as the news spread and I must admit that I took part in the debate along with thousands of others. Some ‘tweeters’ pointed to her previous doubting of human influenced climate change before taking over as a Climate Change and Energy Minister; some highlighted her support of hunting. On the whole, the feeling wasn’t one of goodwill. Personally, I have my doubts that she is the right person to bring farmers, conservationists and others in the rural community together – she doesn’t appear to be a figure of unity. However, as I suggested when Liz Truss took over at Defra two years ago, time will tell and she deserves some time to bed in and work things out. She seems aware at least of the fundamental changes that British food, farming and the environment will face as a result of the negotiations. She needs to hit the ground running in generating a new British Agricultural Policy and plan for environment that provides the public with value for money, supports small producers, maintains cultural and historic landscapes, protects and encourages wildlife and discourages pollution and poor land management practices. As somebody who has come from a business background she should at least understand that uncertainty provides the least beneficial situation for farm businesses and so she should work hard to reassure farms and to generate a plan that they can get behind. On the environmental side she needs to understand the issues we face, particularly as we move towards the publication of the next ‘State of Nature‘ report, later this year. Critically, she needs to understand the socio-politics of the rural agenda and work hard to be a figure of unity. Leadsom would not have been my first choice to head up Defra, far from it, but it is she who leads us now and we must hope that she does the job well. […]

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