Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2014?
In Defra we’re often called into action to respond to threats to life and property, such as last winter’s flooding. This was a big test of our ability to work with national and local partners to help the communities affected – both during the floods, and in the recovery. I’m proud to say that, with extra funding from the government, the Environment Agency has now completed the repairs to help restore flood protection to over 200,000 households. In the budget, we secured a record level of investment over six years to ensure over 300,000 extra households will be better protected by 2021.
A healthy environment is crucial to growing our economy. This autumn we produced the first ever ‘pollinators strategy’ to support farmers and landowners to improve life for the bees and bugs that are essential to our crops and orchards.
The challenge of managing the risk of pests and diseases in a global world is growing. We work with a range of countries and partners to track potential threats to our biosecurity. This year we published a Plant Biosecurity Strategy and appointed our first chief plant health officer, Nicola Spence.
Food and farming is an important industry in the UK, and offers great potential for exports. This year, we’ve negotiated over 100 new market access deals for animal and animal products. Last year we opened 112 markets, helping to increase exports to non-EU countries by 15% to £1.35bn.
We are also committed to reducing burdens on business, farmers and society. Since the Red Tape Challenge was launched, Defra has reviewed over 1,200 regulations. We are making it easier for people to do business with us by simplifying our guidance on regulation, reducing the volume by over 80% by the end of this Parliament. Looking ahead, UK businesses are on course to save £300m each year from April 2015 through our work to simplify environmental, agricultural, water and marine regulation.
What are your department’s top priorities in the last months before the general election?
We are focused on delivering our four priorities: to lead the world in food and farming; to protect our country from floods and plant and animal diseases; to improve the environment; and to champion the countryside and protect rural services. One of our biggest challenges is getting ready for the implementation of the new rural payments scheme, worth some £15bn in EU funding over the next seven years, for people involved in farming, the environment, and rural skills and businesses. This is a ‘digital by default’ exemplar, with help for those who need it. We are putting our customers at the heart of what we do, having more flexible systems and processes, and inspiring and motivating our people to do a great job.
What’s your favourite Christmas treat? And what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug!’?
My treat is going for a walk with my family in North Yorkshire on Boxing Day: if it snows, it’s even better. As for bah humbug: celebrity TV presenters.