Can this man persuade the countryside to vote Tory?

Article in the Western Morning News, 6 March 2010

Nick Herbert wants to fly the flag for the best of British. The shadow environment secretary tells Matt Chorley how local milk tastes better, why Labour couldn't care less about the countryside and warns all politicians against ‘having rural affairs'

If an army fights on its stomach, the battalions of civil servants in Whitehall are an unpatriotic bunch. The amount of homegrown food served up by public bodies fell last year, despite Labour's bold claims that it was ready to take the action needed to support the nation's farmers.

Nick Herbert believes the public are one step ahead of the government, with the explosion in farmers markets and campaigns to "buy local" proof that shoppers - if not ministers - care where their food comes from.

"There is a growing interest in food," says the Conservative shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs. "The supermarkets clearly know this because increasingly they are starting to label more honestly and tell us where food comes from. They are very close to their customers.

"Of course people are sensitive about prices, particularly in an economic downturn, but I think that they also want to know where their food comes from. They want to know that it has been raised to high animal welfare standards and high environmental standards. If they buy British they can be assured that it is, because we have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world."

A Conservative government would demand that all food bought by government departments is produced to British standards, making it less likely to rely on cheap foreign imports. As well as being a striking, patriotic message to farmers and voters alike, it could also bring economic benefits. The government food bill tops £2 billion a year.

"You would think that the food served in each ministry would be - where possible - locally sourced, sustainably sourced, and often it isn't.

"Here you have a prime minister in Gordon Brown who talked about Britishness and actually, typically, when it comes to this kind of test, he fails it."

This is just one way, Mr Herbert claims, that the Government can act to boost agriculture production and influence what we eat. More can be done with public money, though.

The Western Morning News' long-running Think Local campaign urges shoppers to buy local where possible, but also support local businesses and persuade public bodies to invest in the local economy.

Mr Herbert said the campaign was "exactly right". Where schools, hospitals and councils adopt a sustainable procurement policy and consider buying locally, "it's better for the environment and all the evidence is that can actually reduce costs".

He recently visited a dairy in the Westcountry supplying milk to a local hospital trust.

"They were able to supply at a lower cost than a neighbouring trust buying milk from a national contract. That was because the milk was fresher, less of it went off, and patients liked the milk so everyone was a winner. I do think this is something that government can do."

Mr Herbert suggests there is an ideological difference between the Conservatives and Labour in their approach to using public spending power to support local economies.

"We all have a sense of local pride and we understand the social value that there is in our local post office shop and in our farms."

Instead, Labour simply "couldn't care less" about rural areas, which have been "treated very unfairly" in government funding while decisions are "imposed" from Whitehall. Post offices have been closed, health services have been "downgraded" without giving thought to transport for people who need them, and "they put up fuel taxes without understanding the implications of that for rural areas".

David Cameron has promised to recognise the "social value" of public services - a pledge which was easier tomatch before the recession. "Of course when money is tight there is also an economic question," Mr Herbert says. "But if you start from the position that you value a local service, you can find a solution that will preserve it."

All of this risks sounding at times like motherhood and apple pie, and in the Westcountry there remains scepticism rather than enthusiasm for a new era of Tory government.

"We want people to be enthusiastic about the idea of a Conservative government. One thing I do know is it's clear the majority of the public do not want to see another Labour government led by Gordon Brown."

What about the Lib-Dems, I ask? "Who?" Mr Herbert replies with a laugh. I try again.

"It's five more years of Gordon Brown or it's change under David Cameron and the Conservatives," he tells me. "People will have to ask themselves that question - what will a vote for the Liberal Democrats do to help secure this change? Or will it help to secure five more years of Gordon Brown?"

A charge often laid at Labour's door is its apparent failure to understand farming. After the disastrous handling of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, Tony Blair created Defra and appointed Margaret Beckett its secretary of state. Relations with the farming sector hit rock bottom. "Firstly we need to put the ‘f' back into Defra. We need to put farming back in."

The Conservatives have launched A New Age of Agriculture - a 20-page manifesto for farming, described by the party as far more substantial than what has been promised at previous elections. It includes a new policy to protect the best agricultural land - roughly a fifth of all farmland - from development. "We do have to take a view about the importance of preserving this land for farming and for future generations to make sure we can preserve our food security."

Mr Herbert believes that a Conservative government could reverse the recent trend which has seen Britain's self-sufficiency fall.

"We have got to double food production globally in the next 30 years. We will have to feed more than 9 billion in a population which isn't just growing, but with changing patterns of food consumption and against a background of climate change where unusual weather events may make agriculture production harder."

While agriculture production will need to improve in developing countries, "Britain needs to make sure we have our own food security". Instead Labour has presided over a decline in domestic production. "We simply are producing less British food in key commodities than we were 10 years ago because the Government had an explicit policy that it didn't care where food came from."

This approach was "incredibly short-sighted and let down our farmers" - and the Tories have committed to reversing it. Measures include increasing research and development and skills training while also cutting red tape for agriculture which, like many other industries, is "absolutely hidebound by excessive regulation".

"We don't want is to intensify agriculture in a way that damages the environment. Farming and the environment must go together in partnership. I don't see them as competing alternatives."

Indeed, he hopes to see both given equal standing in a new government department, should Mr Cameron become Prime Minister.

While the New Age of Agriculture document contains more than 40 specific pledges, few will require legislation to be passed by the Commons. Demands for parliamentary time from other policy areas mean Mr Herbert and his team would have to crack on with other changes within their ministerial powers. One policy which will need to be debated is the free vote on repealing the Hunting Act.

At the mention of hunting, a smile plays across Mr Herbert's lips. Since stating the policy in some detail last year, senior Tories have been reluctant to be drawn into the subject further, fearing it will alienate animal lovers in key marginals.

"I don't think most people have strong views about hunting one way or the other," Mr Herbert admits. "We all know that the election is going to be settled on much bigger issues."

He insists that "most people realise that the Hunting Act has failed as a piece of legislation - there have only been three successful prosecutions".

While officially the Tories have promised only a free vote, he "suspects" it will be repealed, but "it is not going to become a distraction".

"We would give an early opportunity to Parliament to consider this issue, but we have absolutely no intention of wasting time on it."

He tries repeatedly to move the conversation on to the "much bigger environmental and rural agenda", which he believes Labour should have spent time working on instead.

"We need tomove on to the real agenda: arresting biodiversity decline, enhancing a habitat with wildlife, making sure that we can conserve species, some of which are threatened in this country and internationally, making sure our rivers don't dry up."

While most farmers in future will have to survive without EU subsidies and handouts, Mr Herbert believes there will be "continuing justification" for giving public money to those who look after national parks and key habitats, like Exmoor and Dartmoor.

"Farmers are the custodians of the upland landscape. If they can't make farming pay on its own, then it's important that we are able to recompense them for the environmental services they are providing, for the management of the countryside."

There will, though, be no return to the pay-asyou-produce subsidies which created the infamous EU butter mountains of food that nobody wanted.

While the first duty of any government is national security and defence, "increasingly I think we will look at environmental security as being a big issue too".

"Look at the humble bumble bee; we have seen quite serious declines of bumblebees. Bees pollinate crops - the crops we use to grow food. Without the bees, we can't exist. It's a very good example of the link between man and nature."

Alongside the environment and food, Defra is currently also responsible for "rural affairs" - a policy area Mr Herbert struggles to define.

"No-one knows what a rural affair is. I think it's the sort of thing a politician is supposed to avoid..."

Defra has "suffered a series of existential crises since it was set up" created from a "shotgun marriage" of policy areas and suffering "one or two particularly useless ministers".

"I don't think ministers have ever had their heart in the department and I think it needs to be given some heart."

The department will also be slimmer. Few civil servants in Whitehall and significantly fewer quangos, which have exploded under Labour.

"There is no political answerability at all; they just go on and do exactly what they want to do. I just don't think that's an acceptable way to do things."

After a decade or more which has seen an expansion of the public sector, many civil servants will find this change difficult to stomach.

Michelle Taylor