THE water shortage must never be allowed to get to the stage where George Eustice, Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the last two and a half years, has insufficient in which to go and boil his head.
Last weekend, Eustice urged water firms to impose hosepipe bans. He may have felt that he was entitled to do this because the water industry is overseen by the regulatory authority Ofwat – which falls under the remit of Defra in that handy arm’s-length way that shields ministers and officials when anything goes wrong. But Ofwat’s task is to represent the interests of consumers, rather than giving force to the whims of ministers.
So here we have the first problem with Eustice’s intervention. There have been far too many high-handed commands issued to the British people by ministers and their tame experts. And while it has often been hard in minister/expert pairings to tell who is the puppet-master and who the puppet, it’s relatively straightforward to recognise which politicians have that ugly authoritarian streak: Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid stand out.
The role of a minister or a civil servant (and there’s a clue in the titles) is not to boss the populace, but to serve it. Democracy is dead when that relationship is reversed, so I hope that Liz Truss will take note and send Eustice packing when she takes over.
The second problem is that if there’s a shortage of water now, or inundation of the Somerset Levels again in the future, then this is due to mismanagement and bad policy – for which politicians and not consumers are responsible.
The same goes for the floods of illegal migrants that politicians are seemingly powerless to stem. As the population grows, Britain’s infrastructure becomes increasingly inadequate.
Defra comprises a mish-mash of roles which can and do conflict with one another. This can also aggravate already impressive levels of blinkered, bovine stupidity amongst ministers.
The third problem concerns food. There is an impressive culture of private small-scale production in this country and while the denizens of SW1 with their busy lives telling other people what to do, rely on the Ocado van or the Waitrose lorry to keep body and soul together, the battalions of allotment holders and home gardeners need liberal access to water for their produce.
Water here is metered, so we pay for what we use and this is how it should be. It’s been a good year in the garden and there should be plenty of leeks, Brexit sprouts, parsnips and cauliflowers to see us through the winter and well into the spring. The reason I am confident of this is that I shall ignore George Eustice, just as I ignored Hancock, Witty, Vallance and the rest of them.
Finally, if you think that Defra would actively seek to promote food production, you are mistaken. Taking land out of optimal production in favour of ‘rewilding’ is now an important environmental priority, although you will be hard-pressed to discover what earlier level of ‘wilding’ is envisaged.
Farmers who were previously paid for set-aside in order to reduce the EU intervention surpluses are now paid to promote wildlife habitats by embracing farming as taught at the Eddie Grundy Agricultural Academy. Rewilding allows swathes of agricultural land to be infested with ragwort.
Defra has very particular rules surrounding ragwort and how land near fodder crops and land used for grazing should have margins free of the weed of respectively 50 and 100 metres.
If you happen to see livestock grazing in a field containing ragwort, you might be sufficiently concerned for the welfare of the animals to consider alerting Defra of the danger. But beware: The Defra site states that ‘you should make a reasonable effort to raise your concerns with the owner … before complaining to Defra’.
What are the odds that the landowner would give you the same curt response that George Eustice now deserves?