Defra promises 're-making' to fight floods and diseases and drive exports

Defra will invest 12 per cent more capital this Parliament to upgrade its animal and plant disease response, improve flood defences and modernise the organisation, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss pledged today (January 6) at the Oxford Farming Conference.

Truss, who agreed to a 15 per cent funding cut at Defra's in the Autumn Statement 2015, will outline her key priorities to improve the service it delivers for rural communities, as:

  • re-making Defra so it becomes more efficient;
  • giving greater control to farmers and local communities;
  • investing in improving resilience, including in animal and plant disease response;
  • investing in flood defences, better protecting over a million acres;
  • establishing a new Great British Food Unit to drive up exports.

APHA said: "With regards to plant health, this announcement reiterates Defra’s spending review announcement - Defra’s settlement secured over £130 million capital investment in Defra’s science estates and equipment, including funding to enhance national outbreak response capabilities.

"This includes £21.3million of investment over four years for the Centre for Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) to revolutionise how farmers manage crop threats including pests and disease, both in the UK and overseas."

Truss said: "Defra is reshaping itself to help Britain be a global leader in farming. We are making efficiency savings of 15 per cent at the same time as putting more money into capital funding - a 12 per cent increase to £2.7billion over the next five years. That means we can invest in technology and digital systems, growing our exports, world-leading science, protection against animal and plant disease and, of course, flood defences.

"In the past, the department and its agencies have been accused of operating in silos – looking just at flood protection, just farming or just the environment. This is going to change.

"And we have been criticised for taking too much decision-making out of local hands. While it is right that we manage major national risks, it does not mean we should seek to micro-manage everything.

"In the future, we will be more integrated and less siloed. Defra and its agencies like the Environment Agency (EA), APHA, the RPA and Natural England will in the future be operating towards clear shared goals. There will be one back office so we can save money on admin and spend more on the frontline.

"From this July, EA and Natural England will work together locally using the same boundaries and the same plan. Under the leadership of Sir James Bevan and James Cross, these organisations will be more pragmatic, more responsive to local communities and deliver better value for money for taxpayers.

"We will decentralise decision-making. That’s the approach we are taking for the Somerset Rivers Authority and, most recently, the Cumbrian Floods Partnership.

"Subject to parliamentary approval, we will also allow farmers across the country to maintain their own ditches up to 1.5km long from April, so they can clear debris and manage the land. This follows the successful pilots that we started two years ago.

"And we will soon announce proposals to give more powers to internal drainage boards and other groups to maintain their local watercourses.

"It will become simpler to apply for environmental permits. We will cut thousands more inspections with the Single Farm Inspection Task Force.

"We are also improving our resilience to animal disease by investing around £65million into new centres for livestock, crop health and precision engineering.

"This will bring us state of the art laboratories and fund the upgrade of our bio-containment facilities at Weybridge, securing our ability to fight disease."

NFU President Meurig Raymond said: "The NFU has pressed Defra and the Environment Agency to enable farmers to undertake minor works for many years. But, as the Secretary of State announces this, we are stressing that quick reactions and flexible decision-making must be part of these permissions.

"We must see more attention given to other policies such as an increase in funding for flood maintenance activities, sustainable drainage and see a higher value placed on farmland. Work on this must surpass the frenzy of media attention around the devastation we are seeing in the northern parts of England and Wales at the moment.

"I am pleased that Ms Truss spoke about the need for resilient farm businesses today – I’d like to see more firm announcements on flood prevention to ensure government has a policy on this which is fit for purpose. We know society values our rivers as a national asset and they want to see more regular maintenance."

He added: "Despite her enthusiasm for UK agriculture, I am surprised that Liz Truss did not cover the impacts of the introduction of a national living wage. Employment is the single biggest cost for many horticultural businesses and this policy would make UK produce simply uncompetitive."  

Other issues Liz Truss addressed in her speech were the ‘re-making of Defra’ and increased funding in animal and plant health.

Raymond added: "Integration and joined up approaches with its agencies is a necessity, particularly given the savings Defra has to make. But it shouldn’t stop there – Defra has to work better with other government departments if agriculture is to realise its potential.

"Farmers must feel the effects of a more co-ordinated approach on better regulation, delivery and messaging. Issues like taxation, the introduction of the national living wage, and digital infrastructure all shape the business environment for NFU members."

As the Secretary of State announces the investment of £65million into new centres for livestock, crop health and precision engineering, Raymond said: "In animal and plant health we have challenges in the reduced chemistry available for plant protection and better diagnostics and pharmaceutical solutions, respectively.

"This funding is very welcome and we hope this will give a much-needed boost to research and development in agri-tech. We are eagerly awaiting more specifics on this funding as it’s such a vital part of UK agriculture."

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