Irranca-Davies: ‘My appointment is an opportunity for a reset’

Wales’s new cabinet secretary for rural affairs, Huw Irranca-Davies, has admitted “something went awry” in the relationship between the Welsh government and the farming community in recent months, but told Farmers Weekly his appointment was an “opportunity for a reset”.

Mr Irranca-Davies, who was interviewed by Farmers Weekly last week, was appointed to the role by new first minister Vaughan Gething at the end of March – just a month after the biggest-yet protest at the Senedd was organised by farmers.

See also: Farmers to march in Cardiff over food security concerns

The industry had united to call for changes to the latest proposals for the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS), the government’s approach to tackling bovine TB, and its controversial water regulations.

Though Mr Irranca-Davies paid tribute to his predecessor Lesley Griffiths and the former first minister for their efforts to engage with the farming industry, he said “everyone was surprised” that seven years of policy development had culminated in such huge angst.

“I made clear coming into this post that even though I have some background and experience in these matters for many years – not just years but decades – I wanted to actually listen and stand and talk with farmers and environmentalists about the way forward,” he said.  

“That is what I’ve done. It is an opportunity for a reset.”

Mr Irranca-Davies also made clear he intended to take action on the issues raised at the protest.

The Welsh government received more than 12,000 responses to the most recent consultation on the SFS, which are now being considered.

But the cabinet secretary said he would be “very surprised” if there weren’t “some adjustments” in three key areas: The proposal for all farms to have 10% tree cover, ensuring the social value of farming is captured in the new scheme; and making sure it works for tenant farmers and common land.

On the water regulations, the Welsh government has already committed to consider looking at alternatives to closed periods for spreading in the upcoming four-year review of the rules.

Mr Irranca-Davies has since signed off on a long-awaited £20m infrastructure fund to help farmers comply, following a series of farm visits in his first weeks in the job.

But with the cost of compliance estimated to be £360m, he acknowledged the funding “cannot stand on its own”, and claimed retention of the Basic Payment Scheme until the SFS rollout had helped farmers in recent years.

“In addition to that, we actually need to make the call, and I’m making that call, on the wider supply chain,” he said.

“Retailers [must] respond to farmers’ concerns over the costs they have incurred through this period and also the way they deal with farmers within their relationships.”

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