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WMN opinion: Change at the top in Defra raises hopes for rural West

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 06, 2012

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The Western Morning News gave an enthusiastic welcome to Jim Paice's appointment as farming minister when the coalition took office more than two years ago. As a farmer and an avowed supporter of a proper solution to the bovine TB crisis, he offered a workmanlike answer to the many problems beseting agriculture, made worse by 13 years of Labour rule. So his departure in this week's ministerial re-shuffle would have been a cause for concern if he had not been replaced by a new minister who, in addition to displaying what appear to be very sound credentials on food production and the need to pay farmers a fair price for their goods, is also a Westcountryman.

David Heath may seem, as MP for Frome in Somerset, to be a very long way away from farmers in West Devon and Cornwall but, in as far as it has been possible to judge so far, his instincts on what matters in the countryside look promising. As he tells the WMN today: "There is an enormous amount of work to do to ensure a fair deal for rural communities and a fair return for primary producers. At the same time we need to protect rural services, grow the economic opportunities in countryside areas, and balance the needs of often fragile environments."

To most Westcountry rural dwellers all of that might seem self-evident. But it is not so long ago that farming ministers in an earlier administration would have put those priorities in a very different order, relegating a fair deal for farmers to the bottom of the list and putting caring for a "fragile environment" at the top. Now, with Owen Paterson at the helm of the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs – who sits for the rural North Shropshire seat and also campaigned for a cull of badgers to tackle bovine TB – hopes must be high that progress is being made on proper recognition for the countryside by Government.

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Congratulations to North Devon district council for taking the bold decision to say "yes" to artist Damien Hirst's offer to put a giant statue of a pregnant woman on Ilfracombe harbour front. Of course the plan – like the sculpture – is controversial and not to everyone's taste. But always taking the safe option can make for a very dull life and some very dull public spaces.

It is always possible to come up with a very good reason for turning down anything vaguely ground-breaking, particularly in the towns and villages of the Westcountry, many of which are in sensitive locations and have not changed for years. But if bold choices had never been made would we have seen Smeaton's Tower erected on Plymouth Hoe, the famous funicular railway linking Lynton and Lynmouth or the Eden project built in the middle of the Cornish countryside? The statue of the pregnant woman will draw in the visitors to Ilfracombe and make people talk about Ilfracombe. What's so bad about that?

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