A white, middle-aged, country man who nevertheless forgot to take his wellies to a flood zone a stone’s throw from one of his infamous badger cull areas, now finds himself culled. Is this how we should remember the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, September 2012-July 2014?
Paterson’s appointment to Defra was popular with farmers and landowners because he was seen as one of their own: MP for that most rural of constituencies North Shropshire, and a leading figure in the European tannery trade. Defra was badly in need of a safe pair of hands after Caroline Spelman’s disastrous attempt to privatise the Forestry Commission. Moving across from the Northern Ireland brief, Paterson was to prove an able choice in this regard.
That is not to say the Defra tractor ploughed a steady course during his tenure. As well as leaving his boots behind for his slow-off-the mark visit to the flooded Somerset Levels, Paterson persevered to push through two hotly contested badger cull trials. This will perhaps be remembered as his most controversial act – but Paterson should also be remembered as the opposition spokesman who tabled more than 600 questions to Defra on badger control in a quest to understand the issue properly. On this issue Paterson clearly believed that he had the best interests of the dairy farming industry at heart.
He was also a passionate advocate of GM crops and technology, highlighting the problems of potato blight in his speech to the NFU in 2013 – preferring the prospects of GM spuds to repeated applications of pesticide. Paterson also espoused a strong interest in new farming technology, although major funding in this area come from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills rather than Defra. The horsemeat scandal rattled confidence in the meat supply chain but Paterson could claim that the UK was one of the first EU members to raise concerns, and one legacy of this has been an increased interest in the provenance of meat.
It was also Paterson who commissioned David Fursden, former president of the Country Land and Business Association, to lead the Future of Farming Review, with a view to easing the way for new entrants into an industry characterised by an ageing workforce.
So very much an industry man? The environmental lobby seems to be sighing with relief at the departure of the climate change sceptic, who was rumoured to forbid departmental officials from using the phrase “ecosystem services” in his presence. But this is perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of Paterson’s short tenure.
Here was an environment secretary who was credible with farmers and industry, and his reluctance to square up to the implications of climate change for farming and the rural economy represents a failure of leadership of environmental and farming interests. He is not without environmental credentials – witness his work with the sea fishing industry on conservation of stocks and the impact of the European fisheries policy – and serious engagement with the long-term implications of climate change would have been a compelling legacy.
Defra is without doubt a complex brief and Paterson was in the post for less than two years. Nowhere is this complexity more challenging than Common Agricultural Policy reform, and Patterson’s incumbency coincided with a particularly demanding period of CAP reform. An important legacy will be the CAP modulation rate for England he announced last December: modulation is Euro-speak for the proportion of CAP money which is channelled away from direct payments to farmers and into environmental schemes. Farmers had begged for 9% on the grounds that a rate any higher would ruin them, while environmental advocates such as the RSPB pressed for 15% as better use of public money in the countryside. The Paterson answer was a straight-down-the-middle 12%, with a promise to review it (upwards) in a year or two.
That task will now fall to his successor Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, freshly arrived at Defra from the Department for Education. Considering the importance of irrigation to her farming constituents in East Anglia (Britain’s driest region), Truss should also be well equipped to pick up the remaining work on Defra’s groundwater abstraction consultation.
Let us hope that Truss is given a reasonable few years to make a go of her new brief at Defra before she too, in the words of her famous namesake, “eats shoots and leaves”.