After the storm it’s time to start managing water


The scenes of flooding from northern England and parts of north Wales which have dominated our news screens over Christmas and continue to dominate our screens into the new year are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying for the people who have been forced out of their homes. Many will never again feel comfortable and safe in the homes that they have spent a lifetime building for their family.

A a former environment minister I saw at first hand the impacts of winter storms along the north Wales coast and again in Aberystwyth two years ago. I have stood in the living rooms of people crying their eyes out and spoken to people trembling with fear because they relive the sound of the water rushing into their homes every time they hear the weather forecast. And people who cannot look at the brook in high summer without seeing the torrent which took away for ever their security and peace of mind.

Let no-one be in any doubt of the impact of this destruction. It is not simply a matter of time and money, it is peoples’ home, memories and futures which are being destroyed. The personal impact is even more devastating than the material and economic impact on a whole town or city. But having said that, the sight of some of England’s major cities being brought to their knees in this way retains the ability to shock as does the sight of our own communities and major infrastructure such as the A55 under immediate threat.

There are certainly changes taking place to our weather patterns. Storms have always happened and alway will do so, but the storms that we have witnessed in recent years are unprecedented in their ferocity and their frequency. Whilst it is true that there are limits to what can be either done or promised by governments and politicians to protect us from nature, we have been warned of these changes for many years by the scientific community and it is therefore a fair question to ask governments and policy-makers what actions have they taken as a consequence of these warnings and how these warnings have affected their decisions.

And in asking this question we need to look at not only the immediate short-term priorities but also at the long term. In the short term we will clearly need to invest in traditional defences to protect homes and infrastructure. The north Wales coast with both the main rail-line and the A55 situated right on the coastline alongside a significant number of vulnerable communities is a good example of an area where continued investment is required in these sorts of defences. But perhaps the key to dealing with these events in the long term lies not so much in the concrete of huge flood defence schemes but in the longer term programmes which changes behaviour to accommodate climate change and how we manage water in our society and environment.

Rather strangely in England the media seem adapt at reporting the facts but doing so with an almost beguiling lack of curiosity. If these same events took place in Wales then I’m pretty sure that more substantial questions would be asked about the policy approach taken by successive governments. Cameron has now been forced to answer some serious questions on the approach taken by both of his governments but generally he has faced little criticism or question over the policies of this and the last coalition government who have cut spending on flood and coastal defences as a a matter of policy. Those climate change deniers, who seem to sometimes drive UK Government policy thinking and of whom the BBC still seem to be in awe, are never seen speaking to the people who have lost everything at times like this. They prefer the safety of a tv/radio studio or an editorial conference full of their school pals who all live in well-protected and safe environments. It’s time for Cameron to dig out his sledge and take them on.

At the same time the criticism of our own First Minister on this matter is misplaced. Both the minister, Carl Sargeant, and the First Minister have visited the areas affected. It is unfair and unreasonable to attack either one of them for not visiting a particular location at a particular time. The fact that both took the time to speak with people affected as well as the emergency services and that both will visit again this week demonstrates the seriousness with which the Welsh Government takes these matters. And this is not new. I remember commissioning two reports from NRW on our coastal defences in the wake of those storms two years ago. There was no argument at all over ensuring that the Welsh Government committed all the resources and the cash needed to repair the damage. Compare and contrast with the actions and decisions of the UK Government.

These events will bring again into focus the importance of climate change, along with inequality and the eradication of poverty, as the key challenges of our age. The Welsh Government, alongside all other governments, needs to make the mitigation and adaptation of the impact of climate change a key determinant of policy. And I hope that this will feature in the Welsh Labour manifesto when it is published in a few months.

So what do we do?

Firstly, as I have already suggested we do need to maintain, repair and invest in the traditional means of defence against flooding for some of our most vulnerable communities and infrastructure. Secondly, we need to ensure that the Pitt Report is implemented in full with an emphasis on relocating essential infrastructure to safer locations and UK utilities need to be compelled to do this if they do not prioritise it immediately. And finally we need a serious debate about how we manage water in our society and environment. And this debate needs to start high in the uplands and needs to end in our own front gardens.

We have managed water badly in the uplands for decades and this is the fault of both farming as an industry and successive policies driven by successive governments. In the annual row between George Monbiot and the NFU we tend to lose sight of what is possible in a tiresome and sterile point-scoring exercise. However there is an inescapable truth. If we manage water better in the uplands then we will do much to reduce river-flooding in the lowlands. For too long farmers have managed the subsidy system rather the land. And they have been encouraged to do so by the farming unions and by lazy politicians. The result has been a deterioration in the ability of our uplands to absorb and filter water in a way which will contribute towards the regularisation of water flow in our rivers.

And this is possible. There are many great examples of tree-planting and livestock management which are helping our soils and rivers cope. The example of Pontbren in Montgomeryshire is a good one as is the management of the Wye and Usk and, in places, the Tywi as well. One of the things that I did in government was to insist the the current rural development plan includes the restoration of Wales’ blanket bogs. Perhaps not the sexiest policy ever promoted by government but it is one that will will manage water in a more traditional and effective way than the centuries-old practice of bog-draining. It will also help reduce our carbon emissions by recreating enormous carbon sinks and will enable better mixed upland grazing which in itself will help the uplands become more productive and economically viable.

And this approach needs to form the basis of our approach to river basin management along the river course. Those people who seek to dredge every river every year contribute to the problem and not to solving the problems. We have seen too much top soil lost and too many rivers straightened and the natural approach to water management lost over the years. Dredging is only an answer for the TV cameras. It is never the way in which we will maintain healthy watercourses into the future.

But we need the full suite of policies to make this happen. The current system of farm payments do not do this. My successor as agricultural minister had no choice but to introduce the current system given the high court challenge that she faced last year however, the impact of the system is to make many millionaires in the uplands and this will do nothing to encourage a better way of farming. Better to pay the farming community to manage the land in a more sustainable way than simply to throw vast sums of public money at the industry with little public policy return.

And then we need to manage the water in our towns and cities more efficiently and more intelligently. For instance, it is mad that we try to capture and treat, at huge public expense, all water that falls in our towns and cities. Welsh Water has been piloting some “waterscape” schemes which seek to build soft water capture and management in an urban environment. We need this to be norm in the future.

In terms of planning and urban land use we need to ensure that water management is a part of all new developments and is a part of how we plans our urban spaces. For instance, why not plant grass and wild flowers in our city centres rather than endless concrete squares? Why not help people to maintain lawns rather than concrete over gardens? And ensure that porous and absorbent surfaces replace the hard urban town- and cityscapes to which we have become too accustomed over recent years. I’m not sure that I agree with Monbiot when he demands the wholesale re-wilding of the countryside but he certainly has a point about our towns.

And its this long-term intelligent approach that has already proven successive in protecting Pickering from the worst of the flooding over the last few weeks. And it is this long-term approach that will change not only the shape of our towns and cities but also how we value and manage water throughout our environment. And that can only be a good thing.

It suits England so it’s not going to change…


I will start with a warning. This is a post for agricultural anoraks.

One of those things that can sometimes dominate debate in agriculture and which is almost completely unknown to the rest of the population is the levy system. Without going into too much detail, the levy is a payment made by producers to a levy board in return for support in terms of marketing and business development. Despite agriculture being almost entirely devolved this levy system remains one of those few areas that continues to be administrated from London.

In Wales the red meat levy paid by pork, lamb or beef producers is paid to the Welsh levy board – Hybu Cig Cymru – the amount of that levy is determined by Welsh Ministers. Hybu Cig Cymru do a great job and is a model that could help other sectors. All other levies are paid to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, for Wales that means mainly horticulture and dairy as well as meat products from England. In addition to this there is also Seafish which, as the name suggests, is the UK’s seafood levy board.

These boards are responsible for providing support to producers, supporting the supply chain and marketing the goods. And in my view, their performance in supporting Welsh producers is dismal. In my experience the AHDB is an organisation that is almost completely devoted to the interests of the industry in England and cares little for producers in Wales.

This has been something which has tried the patience of many ministers and many government officials and over which there has been intensive lobbying over many years. And still there is no sign of change.

In three years in government I had the opportunity of meeting the chair and chief executive of the AHDB on one occasion. A sad 15 minute meeting in Aberystwyth. They appeared to have little to say to me. On the appointment of a new Chair I was persuaded by officials to write an effusive letter of congratulations and an invitation to Wales was issued. Even my most patient officials gave up the cause when we had received no reply some months later. “It’s very disappointing minister…” Too right it is.

This is a problem for us. I’ll give you an example. In terms of red meat, although we have our own board in Wales we lose over a £1m every year because the levy is collected at the point of slaughter and the processors are overwhelmingly concentrated in England. The same issue affects the Scots in exactly the same way. Together the Welsh and Scottish levy boards commissioned some research which was published in January 2013. I remember reading the first draft during a break in meetings in Brussels. Myself and the Scottish minister asked the UK (English) minister for his views. He didn’t challenge the findings, he simply groaned and signed a lot. He simply wanted the problem to go away.

The UK Government knows that the system doesn’t work but appears to have no intention at all of dealing with it.

Essentially there are three reasons put forward to maintain the current system. Firstly, that it’s easiest and simplest and we already have the structures in place to make it work – in essence it’s too much hassle to change anything. Secondly that the system works really well for Wales, the problem being that we neither understand or appreciate how good it is for us. We need to improve our communications. And then thirdly and finally, that there’s no pressure for change from English producers because the existing system benefits them.

This final reason of course is the true reason why change does not happen. I remember being told by a UK minister that change is impossible because the current regime suits England. He smiled and I smiled. We both recognised the unspoken truth. And a committee was duly established to improve communications.

And that’s why change is so urgent.

I have already written that Welsh agriculture needs more and faster reform. The levy system may hold a key to delivering this change. It is a system which is funded by the industry and one where control lies outside of government. It is industry-led and industry-focussed. The key for me is that the levy board must certainly include those who pay the levy but also those businesses who process and sell the produce – as well as crucially those who will be buying the produce. And whilst the inequity in red meat is an obvious and urgent imperative, it is not alone. Throughout my time in office I did not see the value for Welsh producers from either DairyCo or from Seafish.

I would like to see a Welsh Food Board, funded by the levies, and which would work with producers, processors, retailers and government to strengthen food production in Wales and to develop new markets for that food produce. This is an industry with not only the potential to transform the economy of rural Wales but also to be an example of what the sustainable green economy can achieve in terms of jobs and incomes and tackling poverty.

And a Welsh Food Board will make an immediate impact. Take the dairy sector for instance, currently suffering some real difficulties due to the Russian boycott of EU produce, a Welsh Food Board could provide the same support for this industry in both business development and new market development that HCC already does for Welsh lamb and beef. And that could help deliver real improvements for Welsh producers. I would guess that on-farm support would be more valuable to producers than the stream of increasingly-gloomy market data that DairyCo currently produce. This is an area that is never going to dominate the debate on the future constitutional settlement but it is an area where change must come as a part of the wider discussions on the next Wales Bill.

The Welsh food industry has the potential to grow significantly over the coming years. But it is crucial that we maintain as much value within Wales as possible, that we export value-added products and not simply the raw materials. Working with the new Rural Development Plan a Welsh Food Board has the potential to transform how this industry grows over the coming years. It can also create new employment in some of our poorest communities and provide much wider and great economic value for the whole rural community.

And if you want to see how it will work then you simply need to look across the Irish Sea where Bord Bia with an annual budget of over €40m is driving forward the Irish food industry. With a focus on industry development, marketing and the highly innovative Origin Green programme it is doing today what we talk about doing tomorrow. And that’s why change is not only important but urgent.

Leaving the EU – the nightmare facing Welsh agriculture


The new EU Agriculture Commissioner visited the Royal Welsh Show on Monday. Later in the week the UK Prime Minister will visit the Showground. It’s a shame that they didn’t meet.

The Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is a former Irish Environment Minister who found the reform of local government there every bit as difficult as our own Leighton Andrews is finding here. He is the first Irish Agriculture Commissioner since Ray MacSharry whose name is still quoted in certain circles as the man who finally managed to set CAP on the road to reform. It was his 1992 agreement which, although a compromise, is widely seen as the beginning of a process that saw a move away from guaranteed high prices to a system of direct income support which is more easily managed by governments. A double-edged sword maybe, but without that fundamental change it is difficult to see how the CAP could have survived in any form at all.

So now all eyes are on Phil Hogan. And expectations are high. And for those of us who favour further reform he has made a good start.

He was very clear earlier this month that he would not intervene in the dairy sector, telling an unhappy Council of Ministers that the industry will need to recognise market signals and respond to market pressures. His good friend, and former Council President, the popular Irish Minister, Simon Coveney, must have been disappointed. Hogan has shown every intention of pursuing a reformist agenda and one which will reflect the wider political, financial and economic priorities of President Juncker’s Commission.

And this is important. CAP is one area of policy that is quoted by both those people who wish to leave the EU and those of us who wish to remain in the EU as justification for their position. It will be a central part of our political debate over the coming years and the positions adopted by Hogan and the Commission will influence that debate. Many farmers will be disappointed or will disagree with the way that CAP is being implemented in their country and certainly many people disagreed with my decisions as minister but I can think of no farmer who believes that they themselves, or the industry as a whole, would be better off outside the European Union.

The Welsh Minister, Rebecca Evans, is absolutely right to focus on the importance of the EU to Welsh agriculture and to rural Wales during the Commissioner’s visit. The simple fact is that without CAP and without the payment system that it brings with it, Welsh agriculture and the rural economy would collapse tomorrow. Taken together CAP funds provide over £250m to invest in individual farm businesses and the wider agricultural economy every year. But it does far more than that. In terms of welfare and husbandry standards it provides a quality standard that is recognised across the world. It also provides access to a structured and regulated market which underpins consumer confidence and despite current difficulties it is essential to the future success of the industry.

And if we were not in the EU we would still need to maintain these minimum standards and meet these demands. We would still have to fill in the forms – the red tape wouldn’t disappear but the funding that CAP also delivers would disappear. And we would also have to comply without any influence at all over the rules and how they are agreed. In short it would be the worst of all worlds. This is also where the debate on EU membership becomes entirely disingenuous.

The Tory/UKIP argument that either the UK or Welsh Governments would introduce a system of domestic subsidies is fanciful at best. Which party would prioritise direct funding for farmers over the NHS or over schools or over new roads or railways? And if they did so then how would they win an election? I actually believe in the importance of these funding streams. I argued for the maintenance of direct support for farmers whilst listening to UK Tory ministers arguing for the immediate abolition of CAP direct payments. But I’m not sure that I could go to the voters of Blaenau Gwent and argue for those payments rather than funding our local NHS. And I can’t think of many politicians in any party who think differently – whatever they may say in Llanelwedd.

And despite all the criticisms made of CAP, there is one aspect of it that is inescapable. It works.

I well remember the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, happily launching the UK Government’s Balance of Competences exercise which would examine all aspects of the Uk’s relationship with the EU. This, he told a hushed and expectant meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, would dominate the 2015 General Election. It would frame and shape the manifestoes of all the political parties, it would enable us to make judgements based on a hard-headed analysis of the pros and cons of EU membership. He could barely contain his excitement. Unhappily for the Tories and UKIP this hard-headed analysis demonstrated that, on balance, EU competence over agriculture made sense and was beneficial for Welsh farmers. It proposed no change to the status quo.

In fact the whole exercise was a disaster for those who expected it to make the case for a UK exit. A whole new department was created in the Foreign Office where their greatest minds were set to work on this career-defining work. And page after page and chapter after chapter it finds that the current balance of competences between the EU and member states broadly makes sense. It should therefore be a surprise to no-one that Hague’s great bright hopes for the exercise turned to dust. Today, only three years after it was launched, no-one remembers the exercise. And it certainly did not dominate the general election, inform our judgements or influence our manifestoes. It’s been so deeply buried that it’s even difficult to find on Google. A lesson learnt.

Cameron’s policy of seeking a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is potentially the most destructive threat facing Welsh agriculture today. Many on the Conservative benches in Cardiff Bay criticised me for my decision to transfer 15% of the subsidies paid to farmers to another budget to support not only agriculture but the wider rural economy. But their own Prime Minister doesn’t simply  appear to care little for this 15% but wishes to abandon the other 85% as well.

It is first time that I can remember any UK Government actively pursuing a policy that is so detrimental to Welsh national interests. I know that Rebecca Evans will be making the case for Welsh and UK membership of the EU and I trust that everyone who wishes to see Welsh agriculture grow and flourish will join her in doing so.

Agriculture needs honesty and not easy soundbites


Today Llanelwedd again becomes the centre of Welsh rural life. The Royal Welsh Show is a sparkling, vibrant and life-enhancing event. It is something which we have created in Wales of which we should be intensely proud. For four days we celebrate Welsh life at its richest, from food to environment, to recognising the value of excellence in all sorts of rural skills and an appreciation of knowledge and love of the countryside. Throughout all of this a unique culture inheritance which has been bequeathed to us. And at its heart it is a celebration of people.

And as such it is the exact opposite of the political debate on agriculture. Which is shame because farmers deserve so much more.

Whenever a debate on agriculture, or in fact any aspect of life in rural Wales, takes place in the National Assembly it follows precisely the same format. Every time. Today it is inevitably led by Llyr Gruffydd for whose approach to rural policy Dylan’s vivid “Bible black” description may well have been written.

Using his best funeral tones Llyr lists all the problems and difficulties facing farming. He paints a picture that would have given Dante nightmares. And at the end of this description of an industry and community that is beyond all hope, he delivers his verdict. Which is always that the only solution is ever increasing amounts of public support.

If the electorate were ever to be unkind to Llyr then he would soon find himself in demand as a professional mourner.

I am, of course, being terribly unfair to Llyr who is one of the most effective voices on the opposition benches and will certainly fancy his chances if Leanne falls from grace. And he’d be a serious candidate. But my wider point on the nature of the debate on agriculture in Cardiff Bay is what is important here – whoever the opposition spokesperson happens to be – the story is always the same.

When replying to such debates as a minister I asked my officials for two things – firstly the numbers on prices, production and efficiency – and secondly the latest press releases from the farming unions. I worked on the basis that opposition parties would not do their homework but would simply repeat the lines from the latest press releases. I remain disappointed that I was rarely wrong.

And it is this which does a great industry a great disservice.

Agriculture is the backbone of not only the rural economy but also our culture. As well as a food producer it is the custodian of our water resources, environment and biodiversity. It is critical to all of us that farming not only survives but flourishes. Most farmers know that they are being infantised by politicians who are more interested in their votes than giving them good advice.

From the moment of my appointment as a minister for agriculture I had a clear agenda and vision which I knew that would probably not be wholly welcomed throughout the industry. I was also determined to do things differently. I had seen previous ministers managing for the next week or month, throwing money at fundamental problems which needed more thought than cash. And I had watched as ministers tried to placate and almost buy favour with vested interests. I was determined to put in place structures for the long term and not seek short term popularism; determined to shape the new Common Agricultural Policy and determined that we put in place new structures to support a sustainable food production system in Wales; determined to put in place sustainable means of production that would be both financially and environmentally resilient. And finally and perhaps most importantly, I was determined to tell the truth as I saw it, to lead a serious debate about how we support change and reform in Welsh agriculture. And I hoped that it was this commitment to honesty and reform which would become the hallmark of my time in office. It’s for others to judge, and for time to tell, whether this will be true or not.

So where are we today? We’ve probably had a far more serious debate about the future of agriculture in Wales over the past few years than we’ve had at any time in the past. My first significant decision was to appoint Gareth Williams to conduct a thorough audit of how we manage and regulate agriculture. Others had demanded a “red tape” review which placed the onus for reform on government alone. I was clear that reform was needed in both government and industry. And that this reform included cultural change and not simply a bonfire of grant application forms. Initially welcomed cautiously by the industry and equally as cautiously by my own officials, Gareth created the basis for a different way of working. We succeeded in changing the way that government does business more than we achieved cultural change in the industry but that was always going to be the case.

In retrospect it was my decision not to offer compensation for the snowfall in the spring of 2013 that crystallised this debate and clearly signalled the later decision to transfer 15% from pillar one – direct payments to farmers – to pillar two – the wider rural development plan. And it was the excellent advice from officials to appoint former NFU officer, Kevin Roberts, to write a report on the future resilience of Welsh agriculture which gave us both the practical tools and the intellectual case to help create the future pattern of public support for the industry. It was this report and this approach to business resilience which laid the basis for the current £1 billon Rural Development Plan. I’m delighted that the current minister, Rebecca Evans, has decided to carry forward this approach – albeit with a more ready and infectious smile than I could ever manage.

Kevin argued the case for reform in agricultural production and management and set out the argument that it is in the interests of farmers that more reform takes place and does so at a pace which gives Welsh agriculture an advantage over its other European competitors. And he also demonstrated that many producers are already changing the way they farm. In all sectors we have seen farmers driving change and investing in the future of their own businesses. Our ambition now must be to use public resources to help make this the norm throughout the industry.

Any hope for those opposed to reform that a the newly-appointed Irish Commissioner would slow down the pace of reform were pretty comprehensively shattered a couple of weeks ago when he made clear that there would not be any additional aid for the dairy sector and that he remained committed to further market-facing reforms of CAP. This commitment reinforces my own judgement that investment in greater efficiency and market-development is the best way to secure the future for agriculture in Wales. Reliance on subsidies has not provided farmers with either a decent standard of living or with business sustainability. The old system has simply allowed inefficient producers to dominate the debate and to hold back the industry as a whole. It’s time that the best producers were supported to become world-beaters.

Which brings us back to where we started in Llanelwedd. Like many others I want to see my children enjoy not only the Show but also the cultural vibrancy that it represents. I want to see an agricultural industry that not only creates world-class produce but one that is sustainable for the future. And that means more reform and not less. And a faster pace of reform and not a slower pace. And that will not be achieved when we have a political debate which is based on easy speeches and soundbites which please vested interests but avoids tackling the fundamental economic issues that will underpin future success for the industry. My experience tells me that many farmers will welcome and would prefer a debate which is based on the economic and environmental realities of agriculture – today and tomorrow. With a subsidy regime that is being eroded by public opinion, political decisions and by market forces it is only a hard focus on efficient production and investment that will secure the future. Farmers understand and recognise that. It’s a tragedy that politicians try to duck it.

And the irony is that by avoiding this debate we threaten the long-term future of an industry and a community that we claim to be supporting. No change and no reform and a continued reliance on a declining subsidy will cause hardship and business failure for too many people – the numbers tell an unavoidable story. So let’s change the way that we do things in Wales. Let’s be honest with ourselves and embrace a reform agenda which will establish Welsh agriculture as the market-leader across the European Union. And if we can do that we would do something very special for all of our children.

Tally ho


Most politicians become used to reading colourful and sometimes not entirely flattering descriptions of themselves on social media. One of the more surprising descriptions of myself that I have read recently was “Alun Davies – the farmers’ friend”. It wasn’t meant to be kind. And I must say it didn’t always feel like that either.

The context was the forthcoming vote on hunting and the author appeared to be sure that they knew my views on the matter. They clearly didn’t. I oppose hunting with dogs and I hope that the House of Commons will vote down the UK Government’s grubby little attempt to undermine the Hunting Act when it is eventually put to the vote. In withdrawing the vote the new UK Government appears that it is not only duplicitous but incompetent. It is also demonstrates the power that the SNP block can exercise on a government with a tiny majority and MPs that it cannot control. So much for the “Vote Labour – Get SNP” line we were fed in May.

But back to hunting. Over the three years that I was an agriculture minister I never faced any requests to find ways of re-introducing hunting with dogs in Wales. It was never raised with me as an issue by either the farming unions or any other well-respected countryside group such as the CLA. It was raised with me once by the Countryside Alliance but that seemed only to confirm that despite their re-branding they remain no more than simply a pro-hunting pressure group.

In fact throughout those three years I held a series of meetings which discussed country sports and the rural economy but the re-introduction of hunting with dogs as either means of pest control or as an economic activity was never a part of those discussions. It simply wasn’t relevant.

And this is the key point. Despite all the noise and the fury and the commotion caused by the pro-hunting lobby, it represents only a small minority of people in the rural community. One of the most destructive and far-reaching aspects of the last debate on hunting was how the Countryside Alliance succeeded in turning the debate into an “us against them” – rural against urban – struggle. And they did this quite deliberately and for purely narrow self-serving reasons. They knew the truth. They knew that there was – and that there is today – a significant majority of people in both urban and rural communities who detest hunting. A straight campaign for hunting could never succeed. So aided by lazy and short-sighted opposition politicians, they turned the campaign into one which was not about hunting but about the “rural way of life” and to defend rural people against an attack on their “culture” and their “rights” by an urban Labour Party which cared nothing for rural communities. And in doing this they succeeded.

I remember feeling a real concern about this in the last Assembly, so much so that I led a short debate on the subject which sent some Tories potty with rage. As a minister and as someone who has represented the Mid and West Wales region I have been struck time and time again by how completely this confidence trick has succeeded in creating division, a very real and wholly destructive cultural divide between people sometimes living only a few miles apart. I have met numerous people who are either farmers or who live in rural Wales who are afraid to speak their minds about hunting because they fear the consequences of being seen to be letting down their community.

I hope that later today the House of Commons will send a clear message to Cameron and the rest of his government that hunting with dogs needs to be not simply regulated and limited but banned completely. But that’s not enough. Blair’s equivocation over hunting for the whole of his first government and the first half of his second government created the space for a campaign whose malign legacy still lingers and disfigures too much of our popular debate in Wales where it also affects other aspects of policy from agricultural support to the rural economy, environmental and conservation policy. And it is this almost-cultural legacy and not simply the campaign against hunting that we must now address and overcome.

And we need to do so in a way which takes seriously the real concerns that many people will share about the future of our rural communities. Whether that is about the future of agriculture and the family farm, jobs in rural settings, the future of the Welsh language, housing or access to services such as social care or mobile phones or broadband – essentially there is a whole rural policy agenda which is basically a Welsh Labour agenda. And it could be a Welsh Labour voice that can reflect, articulate and deliver these priorities. The new Rural Development Plan may be the best place to start. In government I was able to negotiate the biggest RDP that we’ve ever seen in Wales – against a backdrop of public spending cuts and huge pressures in departmental spending – as well as some fierce opposition from all opposition parties egged on by the farming unions. This is an opportunity to not only make an historic change in the way that we do environmental management but to invest in the future of agriculture and to address issues of rural poverty for the first time and to invest in the wider rural economy. This is potentially one of the most exciting new agendas that we can pursue in Wales. And if we do so successfully then we will not only remove hunting from the political agenda once and for all but we will also bridge and then remove this cultural legacy of that campaign. And that will do more for the future of rural Wales and those people living in rural communities than any amount of hunting with dogs will ever achieve.