Can Michael Gove solve the Defra puzzle?
MICHAEL GOVE’S reputation as a ‘Marmite character’ was reflected by the reactions of rural bodies—surprise, concern and enthusiasm—to his appointment as Defra Secretary. Mr Gove has rarely been involved in rural issues, but many believe that his genuine passion for change may serve him well in the department that’s arguably most affected by Brexit. ‘Michael’s reputation for deep thought and challenge on every policy area he has tackled makes me confident he will be an effective champion,’ predicts CLA president Ross Murray.
NFU deputy president Minette Batters is also positive. She suggests that Mr Gove’s predecessor, Andrea Leadsom, didn’t always provide sufficient direction. ‘He’s a big hitter,’ she points out. ‘Leaving the EU means we need to look at the agricultural sector through a different lens and we expect Mr Gove to provide leadership. He’ll have a lot to get to grips with, but he’ll be a fresh pair of eyes.’
The NFU and National Sheep Association (NSA) want assurances that Mr Gove understands agriculture’s £8.5 billion contribution to the economy and is prepared to uphold British farming standards. The NSA’S Phil Stocker remembers that, last year, Mr Gove mentioned access to cheap food from abroad as a big benefit of Brexit: ‘That set alarm bells ringing. That cannot be someone who really understands the value of British farming. You can’t discount anyone for lack of experience, but he needs to step up quickly and give us confidence. As Education Secretary, he didn’t have a great reputation for listening. I’d like him to make a statement that he’ll try to ensure that agriculture comes out of the Brexit negotiations in a very strong position.’
Mr Gove, who led the Leave campaign, has previously implied that Britain could withdraw from the single market, a view now up for discussion in the light of the election result. However, he also suggested that the country could remain part of some kind of European free-trade area and, last week, spoke of the need to create the ‘maximum possible consensus’ on Brexit.
‘[Mr Gove] could start by stating that he would like us to have ongoing, tariff-free access to the single market,’ says Mr Stocker. Mrs Batters adds two more requests: ‘Our sector requires 80,000 seasonal workers, plus we need our permanent workforce—it’s vital that those already working here can stay.’ She also wants Mr Gove to recognise the diversity of the British landscape and of farmers’ needs across the country.
Not all environmental campaigners are thrilled with Mr Gove’s appointment—he’s voted in favour of HS2, fracking and privatising forests and was embroiled in a controversy over plans to move climate change within the curriculum.
‘We must hope that his attitude will undergo a U-turn,’ says Paul Knight of Salmon & Trout Conservation UK. ‘Platitudes about being the greenest government ever will cut little ice unless we see a genuine ambition to deliver results.’ Mr Knight wants post-brexit agricultural funding to reward landowners for protecting rivers from the excess
‘Mr Gove will have a lot to get to grips with, but he’ll be a fresh pair of eyes’
sediment and nutrients that damage water life.
Others are more upbeat. ‘The countryside needs a leader who can win arguments. Michael Gove can do that,’ points out the GWCT’S Andrew Gilruth. ‘The fact he has said little about the environment recently is helpful. his 2,000 staff are now free to brief him on everything from flooding to animal health so he can form his own view.’
Shaun Spiers of the Green Alliance finds it encouraging to ‘hear Michael Gove talk about the countryside as “one of our greatest assets” and pledging to put those who make it beautiful “at the very heart of policy making”. Previously, he had a tendency to talk about farmland as if it was just empty space with development potential. It’s good to see him taking a more rounded position’.
Mr Spiers hopes Mr Gove will link agricultural funding to public goods, such as alleviating flood risk or protecting Nature and special sites. ‘he has the power to set out a 25-year plan for Nature ambitious enough to fulfil his party’s aim that ours should be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. however, he will have to fight his corner to ensure that the countryside, food quality and animal welfare are not sacrificed in post-brexit trade deals.’
Some environmentalists also believe there’s an opportunity to improve legislation. The RSPB’S Martin harper suggests ‘fundamentally reforming the farming and fisheries policies’ and the CPRE’S Tom Fyans calls for a substantial revamp of agri-environment schemes: ‘We’ve focused for too long on maximising production rather than enhancing food quality. We must do much more for wildlife, soils and landscapes.’ The Wildlife Trusts’ Stephanie hilborne adds: ‘Twothirds of our environmental legislation derives from the eu and mapping out a new approach will require dedication.’
Mr Fyans concludes: ‘We must work with Mr Gove and, ultimately, judge him on how far he protects our precious countryside.’
A fish out of water? The reaction to Michael Gove’s appointment as Defra Secretary has been mixed, with some countryside leaders criticising his past record and others praising his passion for change