Direct line to DEFRA meets mixed response

Rural networks which pledge to put farmers in direct touch with government ministers have met with a mixed response from industry stakeholders.

Farmers at one of the first Rural and Farming Networks to meet this week voiced fears that the sessions would merely be talking shops unless DEFRA fully engaged with producers. But other have given them a cautious welcome.

The government has set up 17 networks across England that it claims will give farmers and rural stakeholders a direct line into the heart of government so policies fully recognise the importance of agriculture and the countryside.

But former NFU director of communications, Anthony Gibson, who attended the inaugural south-west meeting, remained sceptical.

“No confidence in DEFRA buy-in, without which it’s just a talking shop,” he wrote on micro-blogging website Twitter.

Cheshire farmer David Rowlands, chairman of the Cheshire and south Lancashire Rural and Farming Network, said the government must be willing to listen to the industry during the policy-making process if farmers were providing important feedback through the networks.

“This is a chance to establish effective two-way communication between farming and the government – the like of which we haven’t seen before,” Mr Rowlands said after a meeting with farm minister Jim Paice to discuss the networks this week.

“But it’s is up to us to capitalise on it and make it work. The policy-makers must also sound us out and listen to what we think as they develop policy rather than after it is in place,” he added. “This is something I believe they know is in their interests.”

Lake District hill farmer Will Cockbain, chairman of the Rural and Farming Network in Cumbria, said he believed the meeting with Mr Paice indicated the government’s commitment to the initiative.

“I believe we’ll see much more extensive lines of communication open up with farmers and rural communities through the new networks.

“And the government has pledged that we will be involved with all future regional visits undertaken by senior DEFRA officials,” he said.