Investing in farming
Sir: Martin Vander Weyer (Any other business, 13 January) says, unhelpfully and inaccurately, that subsidies ‘absurdly’ favour bigger farms. As we look towards life after Brexit, instead of debating the merits of small vs large, the government should incentivise good rather than bad.
My family’s farming business, Beeswax Dyson Farming, farms 33,000 acres directly and has invested £75 million in technology, training, soil improvement and environmental stewardship over the past five years. These are hardly the acts of a mere ‘wealthy landowner’, in his dismissive parlance. Subsidies we receive go directly into the activities that they are designed to support but are dwarfed by our own investments. Farmers in the EU receive substantial subsidies. Unsurprisingly, British supermarkets source roughly a third of their supplies from cheaper, subsidised EU farms.
If Britain wants an internationally competitive agricultural sector, rather than a domestic theme park, we must encourage investment in innovation and stewardship. Removing subsidies from efficient farms simply because they are large would remove their incentive to invest at scale. This will hurt the farming industry and the British economy as we become increasingly uncompetitive against our EU counterparts. Large, well-run farming businesses are good for consumers, for jobs and for the countryside; they should be encouraged just as much as smaller farms.
Sir James Dyson
The short life of robots
Sir: Diego Zuluaga is surely wrong to believe that robots will make us richer and healthier, but won’t require support in their old age (Letters, 13 January). They will require continuous support all their working life — maintenance, energising, programming, software updates, hacking protection — a life which is likely to be very short because of rapid advances in technology. This obsession with new technology is one of the causes of the NHS’s woes. No sooner is new IT and equipment introduced than it is out of date, requiring staff retraining, specialist support and costly maintenance.
Toby’s passion for education
Sir: I am a former secondary head teacher and long-time reader of Toby Young’s column. I have always been impressed by his passion for education and obvious desire to see the system work well for all pupils and their families. None of us is perfect (even head teachers have a past), and his resignation from the OfS means the loss of a voice that would have stimulated healthy challenge and debate. We could do with someone like Toby to stir up the system here in Scotland, where the shaky implementation of the so-called Curriculum for Excellence in secondary schools and the self-satisfaction of some in the education establishment would benefit from exactly his kind of constructive challenge. In a better world, the wisdom or not of his appointment would have been allowed to depend on his performance as a member of the committee rather than his voice being prematurely silenced by the ill-informed screechings of his critics.
Sir: In your leading article (‘What’s going right’, 13 January) you argue that ‘Once freed from the parochial, protectionist instincts of the EU, Britain should be in an excellent position to take advantage [of the growing economies of countries such as China and India]’. Those instincts do not seem to have done German exports much harm. In 2016 German exports to China amounted to $85 billion (OECD). By contrast British exports amounted to $18 billion (ONS). Is it not possible that there are other reasons for the UK’s relatively modest performance?
Hessle, East Yorkshire
Sir: I loved the optimism of Boris Johnson’s piece about the state of the world and the benefits of educating girls (‘Girl power’, 13 January). It was spot on except for this line: ‘We have the continuous ocular stimulation of machines enabled by an internet whose pace and convenience accelerates everywhere, even in rural England.’ Not in this part of rural England! Despite being a mere 12 miles from Milton Keynes, our village has endured years of broken promises and let-downs since funding to deliver superfast broadband was secured and announced with great fanfare in 2014. Nearly four years later, here we are, stuck in the slow lane, with emails crawling back and forth between MP John Bercow, local councils, BT, Openreach and organisations that rejoice in such joke names as ‘Connected Counties’ and ‘Bucks Business First’, but with little progress. Come on Great Britain!
Lillingstone Lovell, Buckingham
A new word
Sir: I would like to thank The Spectator yet again for providing a boost to my vocabulary. No, not from Mind Your Language, as you might expect (excellent as Ms Wordsworth is), but from Rod Liddle (‘The power of the 0.1 per cent’, 13 January). ‘Wankpuffin’ — what a wonderful term for describing the social media fundamentalists. I look forward to dropping it into future conversations.
Just say no
Sir: I was quite surprised that Toby Young can’t wean his kids off the screen without the help of technology (‘Screen-addicted kids?’, 13 January). As someone who’s a bit of a champ in the area of education, I would have thought that he would know that a ‘no’ to kids is the start of good parenting, which in turn is the start of good education. As parents we need to unite against the smartphone and tablet invasion. If we stick together then the ‘everyone’s got one’ line simply won’t work. When your kids are pariahs at school for not having the latest technology, it makes it harder to do the right thing. Only the seriously bloody-minded (ahem, there are some of us left) will just say ‘no’ and get them a little Nokia for emergencies instead.
Smash the box
Sir: Toby Young bemoans the fact that there’s no app with which to silence his television set. But there is: it’s called a 2lb lump hammer, available from all good hardware stores. I applied this upgrade to my own set 15 years ago. The whole family has been the happier for it ever since.
What’s going on?
Sir: Within hours of each other, Nigel Farage calls for a second Brexit referendum, and Matthew Parris (13 January) ponders reconsidering his enthusiasm for the same. Has something been added to the water?
Sunbury on Thames, Middlesex
Sir: Congratulations to Melissa Kite (‘A bird-brained scheme’, 13 January) for bringing to public attention the millions of pounds which many authorities are being obliged to raise by a levy on new housing in their area in order to protect three types of bird species (Dartford warbler, woodlark, nightjar). This tax — around £7,000 per home — was proposed by Natural England, which claims that ‘urban development and local residents’ have been the cause of their decline. The funds are to be spent developing alternative Areas of Natural Green Space.
Councils were misled by their officers in approving this policy in 2005 as we were told that it was an EU directive, which it was not, but nevertheless it is now government policy. The benefits to the birds are virtually nil, as the cause of their decline (which was temporary) has now been confirmed by Natural England to have been bad weather. Bird numbers have now recovered to their 1998/9 numbers in the districts involved. My own district, Guildford, has only 22 nests in its two main protected areas, yet has raised £6 million so far. If our proposed housing target of 12,500 is met, the total raised would be around £81 million. Multiply this by the many other districts, and Kite’s figure of over £1 billion is not crazy. All this waste reduces funds for affordable housing. Why should birds get priority over humans? I urge Dominic Raab, the new Housing Minister, to insist that this policy be reviewed, and that Michael Gove introduces an obligatory cost benefit analysis for environmental policies.
The Hon Alderman Gordon Bridger
Delingpole on plastic
Sir: In James Delingpole’s ‘Nine reasons to be cheerful this year’ (6 January) he writes, in protest against concerns highlighted in Blue Planet II: ‘This idea that we humans are the problem is a construct of the guilt-ridden liberal elite.’ Mr Delingpole’s views on climate change are well known. But even for him, it’s a bit much to claim that mankind isn’t somehow at fault for the proliferation of plastic (the major concern highlighted by Blue Planet II). I have been to a few places and am yet to see plastic reproducing in the wild.
The glue that binds
Sir: One cannot fail to be impressed by Angela Rayner’s recent meteoric political ascent given the account of her own family background (‘Why isn’t Angela Rayner a Tory?’, 6 January). The possibility of a future education secretary without GCSEs, let alone a university qualification, is certainly a refreshing prospect. It is sad to hear of her mother’s childhood and lack of parental care, but would more government intervention have been a solution? Our western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic societies suffer from an inexorable decline in the authority of, respect for and loyalty to local and nationwide communities. Strong communities have supported and shaped families. The glue that binds communities and families has historically been provided by religions and other established moral and ethical belief systems. Such glue is in short supply in today’s societies. It is not clear how Ms Rayner’s government interventions would help this situation — and it is not clear how any current political thinking, whether from left or right, is addressing this problem.