Andrew RT Davies AM, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
This week, people from across the country will descend upon Llanelwedd to celebrate Welsh farming’s best offerings at the 100th Royal Welsh Show – from hulking Welsh Black cattle to lightning-quick sheep shearers.
The Royal Welsh is a fantastic opportunity for farmers and businesses to take a break from their daily graft to come together and showcase to the world their best produce, as not only is it the pinnacle event of the British agricultural calendar, but it’s also one of the biggest and best agricultural shows in Europe.
Food and farming are worth over £6bn to the Welsh economy annually, supporting a combined workforce of over 220,000 people. Yet, despite this vast contribution and prominence, Welsh agriculture and our rural communities continue to be a second-thought for a lacklustre Labour administration in Cardiff Bay.
One third of people in Wales live in a rural area. Our countryside communities face a series of unique challenges which Labour ministers have ignored for too long. This was epitomised last week, before the Assembly packed up for the summer recess, where we heard the First Minister set out his stall in his government’s latest legislative programme.
Remarkably, the statement contained no reference to future legislation for agriculture or the environment in Wales, which left Assembly Members all rather dumbfounded, and is regrettably symptomatic of the Cardiff and urban-centric regime currently being overseen by Mark Drakeford.
With Brexit on the horizon, and more powers and control set to return to Wales, we have the opportunity to turbocharge our rural communities by devising Wales-made policies, focusing and delivering on our priorities for the first time in decades.
But at present, we risk missing out on this golden opportunity, due to the inertia and decay at the heart of Welsh Government, an administration which is high on rhetoric but short on action.
Where is Wales’s agricultural bill? Where is Wales’s detailed plan to tackle climate change? The First Minister couldn’t even muster the energy to bring forward a Clean Air Act to prevent the 5 deaths a day we currently see in Wales, which he’d promised he’d do during the Labour leadership campaign!
And following Labour’s recent declaration of a ‘climate emergency’, we surely should’ve seen a raft of measures brought forward that were fitting in response to such a proclamation, yet once again it appears to be nothing more than a glitzy PR headline from Labour spin-doctors, but with no substance from Ministers to back it up.
So what would the Welsh Conservatives do? Well today, we’ve called on the government to appoint a Minister with dedicated responsibility for developing our rural economy and ‘rural proofing’ all government policy moving forward.
For too long, the economic needs of our rural communities have fallen through the cracks in Cardiff Bay. We’d put that right and ensure a Minister had sole responsibility for driving forward the rural economy, ensuring it was front and centre of the government’s priorities.
No rural area should be left behind and appointing a minister with this sole purpose would help close the prosperity and opportunity gap which currently exists, and ensure we develop a rural economy in Wales that is fit for the future, and where young people can stay and thrive.
A vibrant rural economy is vital for our success as a nation and Nation.Cymru readers will no doubt be pleased to hear that such a role at Scotland’s cabinet table has brought success and increased focus to our Celtic cousins’ approach to their rural communities.
We can and have to do more to increase and improve support for agriculture, and we must also get a grip on underutilised areas of our economy such as the forestry sector and our other areas of outstanding natural resources.
Increasing take-home pay, and ensuring broadband connectivity reaches every home and business in the land are also vitally important so we can ensure Wales’s rural communities are resilient and ready for the 21st century.
Abolishing business rates for small and medium-sized firms would deliver a shot in the arm for our rural towns and villages, giving entrepreneurs the space to thrive in an ever-changing and demanding world.
And as we’ve previously set out, we would also get rid of the scandal-hit, not fit for purpose, Natural Resources Wales. The organisation has spectacularly failed in its remit to taxpayers and continues to let down rural areas from Gwynedd to the Vale of Glamorgan. Quite simply, the organisation has had its day.
One of the first acts for such a Minister should be the calling of an urgent Green Economic Summit. We have to be upfront and honest, as the fight against climate change is going to result in huge changes to traditional ways of life in Wales, particularly as we transition from a carbon-heavy economy to a new green way of working.
Agriculture currently accounts for around 12% of emissions and to their credit, farming unions are putting in place ambitious plans to reach carbon-neutral targets, but the Welsh Government has a fundamental role to play to ensure people, businesses and industries are taken and supported on this journey with a clear plan.
To date, there has been an alarming lack of detail of such measures and the Welsh Government must rectify that at once, otherwise we risk losing hearts and minds in this key fight. Labour’s support of rural Wales continues to wane and as Conservatives want to put these issues back at the top of the agenda – where they belong.
Our rural communities, our agriculture, our environment, and our language make up a huge part of Welsh life. It’s time this was reflected in the business of government in Wales.