Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has vowed to ‘fight the Government evet inch of the way’ as it sets about dismantle support for the renewable energy sector.
In his first conference speech as leader, during which he also vowed to stand up for dairy farmers ‘exploited by supermarkets’, the Cumbrian MP said green industries, including renewables, should be at the heart of the economy.
But he said the Government, which has recently announced far-reaching cuts to renewable support, was ‘dismantling at breath-taking speed every policy Liberal Democrat ministers put in place to support green industries.
“This government needs to realise it’s making the wrong move at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. Liberal Democrats will fight the government every inch of the way,” he said.
These concerns about the ‘wholesale start of dismantling onshore renewable electricity by this Government’ were echoed by the party’s Defra spokesman, Baroness Kate Parminter, at an NFU/Food and Drink Federation fringe event in Bournemouth, on Tuesday.
“The Liberal Democrats are wholeheartedly in favour of supporting renewable energy," she said.
“To say we are disappointed is too mild a term for the way the Conservatives, now they are not encumbered by us pesky Liberal Democrats are literally rowing back on everything we did in DECC in terms of supporting renewable energy.”
She said renewable energy projects helped the UK meet its climate change targets but also supported farmers in becoming viable businesses.
“The wholesale start of dismantling onshore renewable electricity by this Government is bad for the countryside and bad for the future of the country.
NFU vice president Guy Smith agreed there was ‘an unseemly rush by this Government to move away from renewable energy to fracking’ which he said was ‘not considered and thought through’.
“Renewables have givens sustainability to many farming businesses. When the price of food is going up and down like a roller coaster, to underpin the business with renewable energy is a good thing.
“We agree some of the support needs to be ratcheted back but in a planned way so people know whether they are coming or going,” Mr Smith said.
Europe was another hot topic at the lively NFU/FDF, as the panel issued various warnings about the implication for UK farmers of a ’no’ vote in the 2017 EU referendum.
The Liberal Democrats stand alone among the three big UK parties as being united in its desire for the UK to remain in Europe.
Baroness Parminter said, with the polls getting closer up between those in favour of quitting the EU and those who want to remain part of it, she was concerned with the way the debate was going.
Labour’s position is unclear under new leader Jeremy Corbyn, while Conservative leader David Cameron has been forced to make significant concessions already to appease backbenchers, she said.
She said the choice should be straightforward for farmers. “The EU is our biggest market by an absolutely huge margin,” she said.
“(If the UK voted to leave) we would continue to trade with the EU but the best way to build stability for the farming community is to see our place first and foremost within Europe and then build more markets around the world.”
The UK’s political power stemmed from its position as part of a powerful EU community, she added.
Mr Smith stressed NFU members had differing views on the issue and said the union was not adopting a position until it had secured answers on outstanding questions from both sides.
But he said: “We are not frightened of farming outside the CAP and without support. What we are wary of is being asked to compete on the world market against those with greater levels of support than we do and a lower level of regulation – that would put us at a disadvantage.”
He added: “We recognise the importance of being in the world’s most important single trading bloc – if were to leave the EU we want to know from UKIP exactly what the trading relations would be for food and drink with other parts of the world.”
FDF director general Ian Wright said, with the ‘massive skills gap’ one of the biggest issues the food manufacturing sector faced, it was reliant on labour from Europe.
He also pointed to the 148 trading relationships the EU held with other countries, many of which would have to be re-negotiated if the UK went it alone.
The panel also discussed what a food and farming plan for the next 25 years should look like.
Baroness Parminter welcomed the Conservatives ‘belated’ announcement that it is to develop a food plan, something she said the Lib Dems had been pushing as former coalition.
But she expressed concern that the Conservatives’ version would focus too heavily on the single issue of producing more.
She said the Lib Dems believed this goal should be pursued in parallel with policies to ensure food production is sustainable - protecting resources and the environment and promote high animal welfare - with a strong emphasis on producing healthy nutritious food.
She insisted the strategy should not be ‘industry-led’ but should take into account the views of other stakeholder organisations.
Mr Smith said the NFU was looking to the strategy to reinforce the importance of technology in agriculture and to remove barriers facing farmers, such as red tape, prohibitive planning laws and unhelpful taxation.
He said in the shorter term, the NFU was ‘arguing for greater responsibility from retailers’ when it comes to paying a sustainable return to farmers in the context of the current market downturn.