Elizabeth Truss is MP for South West Norfolk and Secretary of State for the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs.
From the Yorkshire Dales to Bodmin Moor, our countryside is a place of unparalleled beauty, but it is also a hive of innovation, technology and productivity. Farming today is as much about satellites and computers as it is about feed and seed.
My first major speech as Environment Secretary in a fully Conservative government, delivered this morning, was set against the backdrop of vibrant Tech City in the heart of London’s Shoreditch. It might not seem an obvious setting for a Secretary of State responsible for farming, food and the natural environment, and some of those invited had to double check that they’d come to the right place. But it was the perfect setting to herald a new era for the department and to champion innovation in rural Britain.
Technology and globalisation have decentralised decisions and ideas. It is individuals that can do things and change things, not just ministers in Whitehall. We need to unleash the spirit of enterprise. The countries that succeed are the ones that give space for people to take the initiative, creating the ideas that bring profit and progress.
Having cut a swathe through the Liberal Democrat heartlands of the West Country and elsewhere, a new generation of rural Conservative MPs have taken their seats in Parliament. They sit alongside colleagues with decades of experience of countryside issues. Like me they will have seen first-hand the fertile ground of our rural economy, like our fast expanding wine industry now worth £100 million, and high tech farmers using hands-free tractors to plough fields.
While rural areas are home to a quarter of all firms, with just one fifth of the population, rural productivity is yet to match that of our towns and cities. To contribute to closing that gap Defra will open the doors to the biggest rural environment data set in the world, the biggest giveaway of government data this country has ever seen. Alongside this we will continue to invest in critical infrastructure, improving rural road and rail and bringing near universal access to broadband and mobile.
We are the most data-rich department in Whitehall, though much of it is hidden away. It is worth billions of pounds to people, businesses and our rural economy. And it can be used to improve the quality of our natural environment. It’s time to realise that value and tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of rural Britain, to drive up productivity and deliver the true one nation economy this country deserves.
So many consumer industries have been shaken up in recent years by smart use of technology and data; fashion with companies like Net a Porter, travel booking with Trip Advisor and taxis with Uber. I want the disruption those start-ups brought to their markets to fizz through food and farming, and the way we look at the natural environment.
Technology will enable our government to do more for less, cut down on red tape and save money for both businesses and taxpayers. We are already doing that by reducing the number of farm inspections: cutting duplication and ensuring farmers only have to deal with one inspectorate rather than numerous, overlapping bodies.
Britain is well placed to reap the rewards of some of world’s most creative entrepreneurs. It’s my mission to make it as easy to run a business in Shropshire as it is in Shoreditch. With great food and fine landscapes the opportunities for our food, farming and the natural environment have never been greater.
Over the past five years, we have seen Silicon Roundabout expand into Tech City. Over the next five years, I want to see its pioneering spirit spread out further; I want to see Tech Country.