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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:51 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 7:51 pm, 3rd February 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate on this key Bill for North Devon where, I am assured, we have a higher density of sheep per square acre than south Wales.

It is easy to be the one-woman tourist board for North Devon: it boasts stunning surf beaches at Woolacombe, Croyde and Saunton; the Tarka trail connects our sand dunes from Braunton to Instow; and Members should not miss a stop at Fremington quay for afternoon tea—cream on first, for anyone not sure how to tackle their scones. We have the Lynton to Lynmouth funicular railway; miles of idyllic rural walks, by day or night, with Exmoor being the first international dark sky reserve in Europe; and our vibrant market and coastal towns of Ilfracombe, Barnstaple and South Molton. We are proud to boast 139 pubs that will warmly welcome last week’s announcement on reducing their business rates. I visited a mere 40 of them in the campaign, so there are still plenty to go in my support of the village pub, which is vital to North Devon’s rural communities.

Getting to North Devon is about to get somewhat easier, with the improvements to the North Devon link road starting this year, championed by my predecessor Peter Heaton-Jones. Peter stepped down as MP so late that many colleagues in the House were more than a little surprised to see me. I pay tribute to his hard work in putting North Devon on the map. In his maiden speech he referred to the need for more infrastructure, and in particular faster broadband. It is with some disappointment that, despite his best efforts and some hard-won improvements, broadband remains top of my wish list for infrastructure developments in North Devon.

I am what is known as a “blow in” back home in Devon. Drawn there a few years ago by its heady mix of sand, sea and rolling hills, I am far too old to ever become a local, but it is the best place to have blown in to. When I leave here and switch my work suit back to my wetsuit, I wake to the sound of the Atlantic crashing over the bar and into the double estuary of the Taw and Torridge, tucked behind a sand dune on Instow beach, which George—my rather plump Labrador—and I love to walk, with stunning sunsets and the idyllic view out to Lundy.

Over three quarters of Devon’s landscape is farmed, yet managed by less than 1% of the residents. I am therefore delighted to be speaking up for them in the debate on this Bill, which will both boost food production and champion our environment, which is another key concern in North Devon. The Bill will ensure that farmers are finally rewarded for being the stewards of the environment that they always have been, and that that is related to how the land is used, managed, protected and preserved, rather than solely to how much land is owned. The National Farmers Union is aiming for English and Welsh agriculture to be carbon net zero by 2040, and the Bill will ensure that that endeavour is rewarded. As the environment is so important to those of us who have the privilege of living in stunning North Devon—so much of which is highly designated to ensure that we are able to safeguard it for future generations—I will champion working towards net zero in the House.

Levelling up will mean a lot to all of us in North Devon. We have the eighth highest percentage of people in work, but our productivity per head is £5,800 below the UK average. That is possibly no wonder given that our average broadband speed is only 60% of the UK average. That has to change. Connectivity is so poor that one village resident explained to me at a farmers market that they were struggling even to get “The Archers”. Having run a dotcom myself for 15 years, I know how important broadband is to small and medium-sized local businesses.

It is an absolute privilege to represent the community in which I love to live, and a particular honour to be its first ever female MP. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Baroness Anne Jenkin and the Women2Win team for their ongoing support. I suspect I am like many ladies on this side of the House in attributing our presence here in large part to Women2Win. I very much hope that I may go some way to inspiring young women and girls in North Devon to fulfil their dreams and reach beyond what they thought might be possible.

My personal journey to this point has been varied, as life’s paths so often are, and I hope that that rich experience will serve me and my constituents well. Members may have noticed that I like my statistics: my short time teaching maths opened my eyes to our education sector and the need to raise our young people’s aspirations. I never knew that my decades as a fitness instructor would be so much needed, given the miles I walk daily getting lost in the corridors of the House.

I stand here to champion the people of North Devon, however they voted last December. On countless doorsteps I said that I would get things done, and I will. I am delighted to speak in the debate on this vital Agriculture Bill in this, our first week as an independent coastal state, which I hope will lead to good news for my local fishermen. I hope that by the time there is another MP for North Devon—in many years to come, of course—they will not be asking for better broadband in their maiden speech.