Addressing the annual Welsh Conservative Party Conference in Llangollen, Russell George AM, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said:
(Check against delivery / Gwirio gyda’r cyflwyniad)
Good afternoon Conference,
I’m delighted to close what has been a fantastic session today on the importance of Wales’ rural communities. After what we have heard today, I’m sure that you will agree that Gary Price, Simon Baynes, Barbara Hughes and Aled Davies will be powerful voices, effectively standing up for Wales’ rural communities when they join me and Paul Davies in the National Assembly in just 55 days time.
Over the last five years, it has been my privilege to represent Montgomeryshire in the National Assembly. However, living and working in beautiful Mid Wales can also be a great challenge. There are specific issues facing our rural communities and, in recent years, many of those problems have reached new highs as a result of the Welsh Labour Government’s failure to tackle these specific challenges.
85 per cent of Wales is rural and rural areas account for a third of the Welsh population. Rural communities are at the beating heart of our country and we, as Welsh Conservatives, have innovative plans to empower and boost support for our rural areas after 17 years of Labour neglect.
On day 1 of a Welsh Conservative Government, we would promote the Farming and Food portfolio to the senior cabinet position of Minister for Agriculture & Rural Affairs, not a junior or deputy position, as Labour believes it deserves. To diminish the importance of local food production in terms of health, jobs, carbon control and care for our landscape is a grave error of judgement.
And we would also appoint a Minister for Mid & West Wales - a new position which would listen to the views of the region and take them to the heart of the Welsh Government.
This Minister would be held to account by an independent panel, comprising of rural representatives from outside of Government – the very people who are far better placed to scrutinise the effects of policies on their local environments, ensuring that the needs and interests of rural people, communities and businesses are properly considered before implementation.
These simple but effective measures will ensure that both our farming industry and our rural communities have an influential voice at the heart of the Welsh Government and will be at the forefront of the policy making process.
Welsh Conservatives also want to give rural areas the opportunity to make their own decisions. It’s the people who live and work in these communities that know best.
Indeed, in direct contrast to this principle, in recent weeks, the "most centralising Government in the Western world", the Welsh Labour Government, with support from both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, have unleashed an unprecedented assault on local democracy by radically restricting the power of Local Planning Authorities with regards to energy projects, wresting control from them and enshrining power in the hands of Welsh Government Ministers.
Whilst Local Planning Authorities in England are being empowered through the principle of localism and the devolution of decision-making powers from central government control to individuals and communities, in Wales communities are being denied a say by a Government wedded to top-down command and control.
In contrast, Welsh Conservatives would deliver true devolution to local communities, shifting power away from central government, bringing transparency and local power to the heart of local decision-making, and restoring public confidence. This will be a key plank of a future Welsh Conservative Government.
And not only have we seen Jeremy Corbyn’s Welsh Labour Government rip power away from rural communities, they have also delivered woeful funding settlements for rural Wales year after year, with support from the Liberal Democrats.
On Tuesday, the Lib Dems voted for a Welsh Government Budget which will pave the way for rural councils to yet again get a raw deal. Rural councils have been unduly penalised for many years under a flawed local government funding formula and they now face the spectre of further cuts to their budgets.
In my view, a child born in Machynlleth or Montgomery should have the same equality of access to a great education as a child born in Cardiff or Swansea. Vulnerable residents who live in Newtown should have access to the same support that residents have in the Rhondda. The Welsh Government should be a government for the whole of Wales including rural areas, not just the urban South Wales Valleys.
Finally, Conference, I would like to refer to the Welsh Government’s abject failure to support Wales’ farming industry, at a time when the industry has faced a difficult economic outlook. As Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, I have consistently held the Welsh Government to account to ensure that our agricultural industry gets the support it desperately deserves.
Labour’s record breaking cuts to the agriculture budget and their nonsensical decision to transfer funds away from direct payments to farmers has severely disadvantaged farmers at a time when the industry in Wales is struggling under Labour mismanagement.
As Aled rightly said, the shambolic way in which the Welsh Government has administered the on-going farce relating to basic payments to farmers has just heaped pressure on the whole agriculture supply chain.
In contrast, a Welsh Conservative Government will ensure that Welsh farmers are supported and remain competitive in the market place. A Welsh Conservative Government will not ignore the need for sustainable support for our farmers and would introduce a number of measures which Barbara mentioned in her remarks.
- review the Rural Development Programme to make it more accessible to all farmers and small businesses.
- implement a ‘Red Meat’ Charter to guarantee a fair deal for farmers, processors and shoppers
- introduce a comprehensive programme to eradicate bovine TB
- resolve unfair commercial practices and contractual issues in the dairy supply chain; and
- use a mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy to generate a fairer deal for farmers.
In conclusion Conference, with the right support, rural Wales could be an economic powerhouse. Through empowering local decision-making; supporting rural public services and amenities; delivering a fair funding settlement for rural Wales and ensuring our farming industry is competitive, our rural communities will be revitalised.
I know that the people of rural Wales will agree with this ambition and that we will have many more Welsh Conservative Assembly Members after May 5th to help secure rural Wales' future.