“I hear people are saying that the farming community doesn’t matter in terms of votes,” the Prime Minister told Ben Gill, who was then NFU president. “But that’s not the way I work. You will have the resources you need.”
Sir Ben has many memories of Mr Blair’s time in office. But this one, says the former farm leader, sticks in his mind more than others. “Until he involved himself in the F&M crisis personally, things just weren’t happening in government.”
Arguably the biggest catastrophe ever faced by British farmers, F&M will feature highly on many lists of the 10 most memorable events of Mr Blair’s 10 years in office. Many people directly affected by the epidemic still bear the emotional scars.
Still involved heavily with agriculture, Sir Ben describes the F&M crisis as a case study in bureaucracy at the heart of government. And it is this – rather than the epidemic itself – that Mr Blair will be most remembered for, he says.
“The bureaucracy that has built up under his premiership is something that is a problem for the country as a whole. It is hampering entrepreneurship and sorting out its stifling effect on the economy must be a priority for his successor.”
Christopher Monk, head of farming at Strutt and Parker, agrees. Encouraging the introduction of a massive amount of unnecessary legislation has added to the complexity of rural businesses with no obvious benefits, he says.
The mountain of paperwork introduced over the past decade includes anti-pollution measures, livestock movement records, environmental impact assessment, restrictive planning rules and agricultural waste regulations. And that’s just the beginning.
Many of these new rules and regulations have their origins in Brussels. But the government has often been overzealous in their implementation, leading to accusations that it has gold-plated European legislation.
“Mr Blair promised to deal with the burden of regulation facing the industry but, over his 10 years in office, the burden of regulation has got worse,” says George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers’ Association.
The result is that British farmers have been left at a distinct disadvantage to their European counterparts, often forced to compete against cheap imports of food produced under conditions that would be illegal in the UK.
Agricultural consultant Philip Wynn, director of Wynn Business Partnerships, says three legacies stand out from Mr Blair’s tenure. They are food safety, agricultural support schemes and the environment.
Food safety protocols have given Britain some of the safest food in Europe, with rigorous audit and traceability trails that enable accurate pinpointing of the food source, he explains. The downside is that the cost falls at the producer’s feet.
“In the future, the government needs to drive for fair play in this arena, where consumers and retailers share the cost of these markedly improved food safety and environmental credentials.”
As a result of Mr Blair’s determination to press ahead with voluntary modulation to fund landscape management schemes, British farmers have inherited some of Europe’s lowest levels of agricultural support.
“It is not a level playing field,” says Mr Wynn. There is no doubt that changes in support have started to deliver some big environmental benefits, he adds, but farmers have not necessarily been the beneficiaries.
“There is a danger with such a costly infrastructure to manage and deliver these schemes that funds will get soaked up rather than made available for developing these types of schemes in the future.”
For many farmers and countryside campaigners, the past decade has been one of protest against the government’s rural policies – most notably against GM crops and the battle over hunting with hounds.
Former Greenpeace director Lord Melchett, arrested in 1999 after trashing a field of GM oilseed rape, believes Mr Blair will be remembered for agreeing with George W Bush on Iraq and GM crops, and failing to convince the British people on either issue.
Now policy director for the Soil Association, Lord Melchett says: “When he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair believed that within a few years GM crops would be the norm and that everyone would be eating GM food.”
He adds: “With the benefit of hindsight, GM is now seen to have been a great victory for public common sense, but a massive mistake for many farmers, like American rice and maize exporters, who have lost their markets for decades to come.”
But not all protests ended in victory. The government succeeded in pushing through its controversial ban on hunting with hounds – despite two of the biggest peacetime marches through the streets London.
“There is an overwhelming sense that Mr Blair always saw the countryside as ‘someone else’s problem’ and never fully engaged with it,” says Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, who still hopes the ban will be repealed.
Farmers will always remember Mr Blair as the Prime Minister who didn’t seem to notice the countryside, he adds. As a result, agriculture remains in desperate need of understanding and action.
“In the latter stages of his premiership he ordered David Miliband to concentrate DEFRA’s work on the voter-friendly climate change issue, while agriculture as we have known it continues to be mired in red tape.”
The abolition of MAFF – replaced by DEFRA in the aftermath of F&M – is symptomatic of the way agriculture’s importance has been diluted within a wider portfolio, says Carl Atkin, head of land and business research at Bidwells.
“Farming and food increasingly play second fiddle to climate change and the environment, which is ironic when those in the industry know that farming has one of the most vital roles to play in mitigating the negative effects of global warming and other environmental challenges.”
Most government policy responses have been too little, too late, he adds. Initiatives such as the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative are trailing rather than leading the market shift to local and regional food.
“It is sad that while all major retailers are now developing a regional food offering for their consumers, the Ministry of Defence continues to procure most of its beef from South America,” says Mr Atkin.
“Policy failings are similarly mirrored in biofuels and renewable energy. Our industry has got off to a slow start compared to the rest of the EU and we are now struggling to play catch-up. As a result we are likely to miss our 2010 European targets.”
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