Thank you Mr. Chairman and can I add my own welcome to everyone here today.
Last year’s conference was pretty much the first official event that I attended as environment minister.
It seems like only last week and it will be no surprise for you to hear me say that time has flown by, and even less of a surprise to hear that some things haven't happened as quickly as I might have liked.
However, I've been working away quietly in the background, and every week brings more things to do.
For those who don't know me well, can I just say that I’m not one for seeking publicity, running to the press, or trying to keep my voice on the radio and my face in the paper, despite what you might have thought during the summer, when I was just about the only minister in the Island.
In environment there's a great deal going on in the background.
Recently, complex issues involving the fishing industry particularly, but just because we don't make lots of noise it doesn't mean we're not busy.
Hopefully with my help, we can deliver something better and realise results that we've not achieved previously.
One thing I don't need to tell anyone is that, as a government, we face financial challenges.
We're committed to making savings, finding efficiencies, reducing costs and that means each and every department has had to look very carefully at what services they provide and where the money is spent.
The Department of the Environment is no exception, and we will be functioning in the future with less resource, and that means fewer people and less money.
There’s huge pressure to stop some of the services we currently provide, and we’ll have to look at that too.
Before I speak further about that, can I say very clearly how grateful I am to the Minister for Economic Development and how pleased I am to be able to work so closely with him for the agricultural sector.
Lyndon stated very early on that he would, as far as he could, maintain funding for farming in 2016 and he's done that.
It's now our job, his and mine, to come up with a strategy that uses those ‘scarce and increasingly difficult to find’ funds to their best effect.
Securing the funding for next year has allowed us to continue the current Rural Economy Strategy for a further 12 months and we are working away to see how that will change after 2016 and I have to tell you that certain things will have to change.
Nitrates, for example, are an issue that we are going to have to finally deliver on.
Over the years, many have paid lip service to those who said levels were too high and time is running out for our farming industry to play its part in the delivery of promised reductions.
There’s no room for nimbyism.
It won’t be good enough to say “yes, the industry can do that, as long as I personally don’t have to comply”.
We ALL have to get involved, but just because there is less "carrot" that doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be more "stick".
I’m very hopeful that next season we can demonstrate that we can, and are, reducing inputs without suppressing yields.
Jersey farmers have always been innovative and I'm confident we will solve the nitrate issue without affecting viability. I'll do whatever I can to help with that.
As minister, I am committed to working with Lyndon to find ways to make sure that the Single Area Payment and Rural Economy money available goes into the countryside, where it is most needed, and the new Rural Economy Strategy, whatever that ends up being, must deliver funds to those out there working the land, keeping those brown Jersey cows in green Jersey fields, those that are striving to keep Jersey farming.
Keep Jersey farming
I have deliberately borrowed that expression from the JEP, mainly so I can take this public opportunity to thank the Jersey Evening Post (Andy and Paula particularly) for their recent initiative to promote local agriculture through their paper.
I can only encourage everyone here to speak in the press as often as they can. Let’s communicate our good news story to the Island at every opportunity.
Let’s make sure the public realise what we’re doing, the challenges we face, and how we’re working together to overcome them.
Keeping Jersey farming gets more challenging every year, keeping the countryside viable gets more and more difficult and so, as well as everything else, I've asked my department to keep prioritising two work streams.
Alternative crops and eelworm.
We've always known that Jersey farmers can grow just about any alternative crop, and grow it well, but finding profitable crops is something else.
Scott Meadows, our Head of Plant Health, is working on new ideas and new initiatives, mainly around non-food crops, and there’s some potential in this direction.
I’m also keeping right up to speed on eelworm control and I know only too well the challenges that a lack of vydate will mean.
Next year, however, the potential move to more automatic planting will give growers the opportunity to apply fertilisers far more accurately, and in doing so use 30% less, by placing it in the ridge so that it is more easily available to the developing roots.
I'll keep you, and I’m sure you will keep me, posted, but please be assured I realise the urgency of finding solutions to the problems of potato eelworm and viable diversification.
Future St Helier
One of the four strategic priorities of government is the Future St Helier project.
We want more buildings in town. Why is that? It's simple, our countryside is sacrosanct. We need to maintain that vision of ‘brown cows in green fields’.
We need as never before to be true to the green zone policy and the protection of our unique biodiversity.
That doesn't mean no more building outside of St Helier, just that we have to learn to be smarter about it.
It's not that we're not smart already; it's just that policy can sometimes, often, not allow us to do what we'd like to.
The Island Plan is our planning bible, but sometimes we need it to work better for us.
That's why today I am announcing some initiatives that I want to bring forward. Some changes based around making better use of our resources across the Island.
First, we need to use all our agricultural land for the rural economy.
The green zone is precious and once land gets development permission, it very rarely goes back the other way. Once it’s gone it’s gone.
I don’t want to lose it, develop it, or build on it. I want to strengthen even further the application of planning policy that says “there will be a presumption against building and development in the green zone etc”.
Recently, we’ve done better.
More planning applications are being challenged and our countryside is being protected in the green zone, but we mustn’t let up.
At the same time, as an industry, we must try not to leave land fallow.
Let’s not waste our own resources, let’s do our best to farm every vergee.
I have asked my officers to continue prioritising work to ensure we are maximising the amount of agricultural land which can be used commercially.
Secondly, I want to say that we need to use all our buildings (wherever they are in Jersey) for useful purposes, and not have houses, sheds, barns, or shops empty.
I want to make sure that our employment land policy is applied sensibly.
It is designed to make sure that we have a sufficient stock of land and buildings that are available to support economic activity in the countryside.
But it needs to be applied appropriately and this should not mean that structures remain empty and unused when, by changing use where appropriate, they could be taking the pressure off the green zone.
I want to ensure that we optimize the use of all our assets even where that means, in some cases, they come out of the use for which they were originally granted permission for.
Let’s convert, adapt, change, modify. Let’s make use of ALL empty or underused structures before rezoning any more green, open, community or amenity land for building.
I’m under no illusions that my proposals will, in some cases, challenge the Island Plan.
Quite often seemingly sensible solutions are the most difficult to achieve, and it will be really difficult to keep consistency across different sites, but we must try.
Many of you will be aware that, some months back, I announced a "greenhouse initiative".
Work has started and we’ve identified a number of derelict sites that were built before any planning laws were in place.
There’s more to do, so watch this space.
Hopefully those particular greenhouse owners will know that I mean to deliver, but, at the same time, there’s something in it for them.
If we can get an environmental benefit for the Island, maybe return some land to agriculture and find a way to help the landowners, then it will be a worthwhile exercise.
In conclusion, let’s all reaffirm our resolve that, to us, the green zone is more precious than it’s ever been.
As agriculturalists, let’s maximize our employment of the green zone, let’s employ but not exploit it.
Let’s use ALL our resources, whether that be the natural or the built environment, and agree that waste, where ever it occurs, a single building or single vergee, is not making the best of our opportunities.
Finally, let’s make a balanced use of countryside for everyone’s benefit.
Yes it’s difficult to keep all our fields green AND active, but we have a positive future, and let’s look forward to that.
Thank you, and I hope you have a very enjoyable day.