‘Health, Beauty and Permanence’ – Reflections on Michael Gove’s NFU Conference speech

I haven’t made it to the NFU Conference this year, but thanks to the wonders of youtube I was at least able to catch outgoing NFU President Meurig Raymond’s speech and Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s speech (thanks @NFUtube!). You can of course read the full speech from the Secretary of State here. Here is a brief outline of thoughts on MG’s speech, as well as key points that he said and some twitter feedback.

Key points made by Michael Gove

  • Defra has been too low in the Whitehall pecking order in the past, but this is changing:

Defra, and its predecessor department MAFF, were kept unjustifiably low in the Whitehall pecking order. That was a mistake. But it could be, and was, defended by some on the basis that the major policy decisions governing farming and food production were taken not at a domestic level but at European levels through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Since UK ministers and civil servants had little room to shape, let alone, reform the CAP’s operation there was, it was argued, little justification for expending energy thinking hard about food policy. This failure, and it was a failure, was all the more lamentable because, as everyone here knows, the food and drink industry is Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector. It’s also Britain’s fastest-growing, with our export growth over the last few months having been driven by massive increases in food and drink sales.

  • Opportunity awaits for government to improve procurement of British food and drink products for its own services.

As we leave the EU, we will have the chance to review how we use the immense buying power of the public purse to, at last, properly support British food producers. Changing how Government procures food can help drive the change we all want to see – we can use public money to reward British farmers and food producers who grow healthy food in a sustainable fashion, we can invest more in local food economies and we can support higher environmental standards overall.

  • He sees a countryside driven by the values of ‘health’, ‘beauty’ and ‘permanence’.

We want a healthy and beautiful countryside, producing food that makes us healthier as individuals, in a society which has a healthier attitude towards the natural world, an attitude that values permanence, where we wish to preserve and enhance natural capital and where we value the traditions and the virtues of rural life.

  • Defra is launching a review of the farm inspection system, with an aim to simplify it – to be led by Dame Glenys Staceys.

And one particular area which is ripe for reform is the current farming inspection regime, which, despite several recent attempts at simplification, remains as unwieldy as ever. Every year, farmers are confronted by a barrage of inspections from different agencies, often duplicating costs in time and money.

So that’s why I’m delighted to announce today we will be conducting a thorough and comprehensive review of the inspection regime, and our aim will be the simplify it. We want to see how inspections can be simplified, in some cases removed, reduced, or improved, in order to reduce the burden on farmers. And also at the same time, providing consumers with guarantees about animal and plant health standards.

This review is not only long-required but also it’s timely as we design future farming policy and maximise the opportunities of leaving the EU. This review will provide answers to essential questions that we need to grapple with to guide our future approach, subject to the outcome of our negotiations with the EU.

  • Defra is aware that seasonal (and other) labour is a big concern for the farming sector post Brexit

…we need to look beyond the need simply for seasonal labour, and that’s why I’ve been talking to the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee to ensure that when they are review the shape of immigration policy after we’re free of EU constraints, that the need for continued access to skilled labour for people in farming is at the heart of their thinking. We need that if we’re going to keep our farming sector productive and profitable.

  • He underlined, yet again, that the environment is at the heart of his thinking.

I’m on record as saying and I completely want to underline here that I believe the most important public good we should pay for is environmental protection and enhancement.

  • The ‘culture’ in agriculture is a public good…

And yes, I am happy to acknowledge that I am romantic about it. You cannot read James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, with its descriptions of life sheep farming in the Lake District, without realising how precious and valuable a link with all our pasts the continuation of farming in communities such as James’ provides. Men and women are hefted in those hills just as much as the sheep they care for. And preserving profitable farm businesses in those communities is just as much a public good as investment in anything that I know.

  • Whilst nothing concrete was promised, the problem of poor rural broadband was acknowledged (yet again).

We’re planning to spend north of £60 billion on HS2, 30 times as much as it would cost to provide universal superfast broadband for everyone in the country. Surely investment in broadband is just as vital, and an urgent part of improving our critical national infrastructure.

  • Gove supports local food economies, although again nothing concrete to suggest what this might mean in practice.

The more we can support local food economies where farmers and growers provide fresh produce to local retailers, the more we can ensure supermarkets and others pay fair prices for fresh British produce, the more children in school learn to buy wisely, cook properly and eat healthily and the more government procurement values fresh, healthy, British food, the better for all our health.

My brief analysis

  • Good to see a bit of E.F Schumacher in there, even if it doesn’t relate to anything tangible…

Well my own view is that we want to uphold the trinity of values identified by E.F. Schumacher – health, beauty and permanence. (MG)

  • We heard a lot that we already knew – such as the reform of direct payments based on land area to a system of public money for public goods.
  • There still seems to be a lot of support out there for MG in his role. It’s good to have a ‘hard hitter’ sitting around the Cabinet table on Defra’s behalf.
  • Little concrete was announced – still a waiting game for lots of issues to wait and see how policy will shape reality.
  • The perception of linking health, food and environment seems to be a personal priority for Gove. I hope he can make headway on this.
  • The definition of ‘public goods’ seems to be quite broad and open ended – we’ll have to wait and see what makes the final list.
  • Brilliant to see moves to simplify the farm inspection process. This will go down very well with lots of farmers!
  • Calls for government to improve procurement of British food and drink seem to have been taken seriously. This is continued rhetoric from Oxford.
  • Still lots of foggy air and questions left unanswered but the trajectory seems positive.

Twittersphere reception

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