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Places for Growth: DEFRA Office (Melton)

Volume 699: debated on Monday 19 July 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maria Caulfield.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Nowhere in the country could offer a better home to DEFRA than Melton Mowbray. I could finish my speech there, but I suspect the Minister would like me to make my case in a little more detail. My debate this evening is a straightforward one. I am proud that our Government are levelling up our country, but rural areas need levelling up too, and if the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will not take up a rural home, then I ask the Minister: who will?

To make my case, I would like to start by inviting you, Mr Speaker, to learn more about the wonderful town of Melton Mowbray. We are located in the very heart of our country. Our market town is surrounded by the Vale of Belvoir and the welcoming villages of Melton. When one thinks of England’s green and pleasant lands, one must surely be thinking of our wonderful area—not perhaps Lancashire, as you may prefer. Our history is long and fascinating, and I will share some of the stories of our town with you today, because they make the case that not only is the food of our nation in our blood, but we are no ordinary market town.

Our livestock market, of which I will speak much today, is mentioned in the Domesday book dating back to 1085. A millennium on, and throughout the week farmers come from as far as Cornwall and Scotland to do trade at Melton Mowbray market. Visitors enjoying great hospitality in Melton is nothing new, because since the middle ages it is Melton where royalty have come to play and to relax. Indeed, in the last 850 years, 16 kings and two queens have visited Melton.

Even the most infamous of kings has a link to our town, for in 1540, as part of his annulment agreement with Anne of Cleves, King Henry VIII gave his former wife a stunning house in the centre of our town, which had previously been owned by Thomas Cromwell and the Church before that. Mr Speaker, that house is now a phenomenal pub, and you and the Minister would be very welcome to come and enjoy phenomenal food and drink there one day.

There is no question but that we are famous for two things in particular—the one and only Melton Mowbray pork pie and Stilton cheese, which was invented in Little Dalby and Wymondham villages in Melton borough in 1710. Until recently, I did not know that we can lay claim to perhaps the most English of all past times—that great thing, afternoon tea. In 1842, the 7th Duchess of Bedford was staying with the Duke and Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir castle and, bored between lunch and dinner, she ordered tea, sandwiches, buns and cakes at 5 o’clock. When she returned to London from her visit, she took the custom with her, and so afternoon tea was born.

Keeping on the aristocratic theme, Melton Mowbray is also where the phrase “paint the town red” originates. In 1837, an eccentric aristocrat by the name of Henry de la Poer Beresford turned up at the tollgate at Thorpe End and, in his state of extreme inebriation, refused to pay the toll to enter the town. Having been challenged over his refusal, he came across a pot of red paint and proceeded to paint the toll keeper, a local constable and a good deal of the town red.

As those wonderful stories show, the two constants in Melton Mowbray’s history are our agricultural and culinary way of life and the extraordinary people who make up our town and borough. Melton Mowbray is a uniquely wonderful, welcoming and generous place, alive with British history, traditions and values and a people proud to feed our country. I will speak much of our farming heritage this evening, but Meltonians are honest and fair people, full of common sense, deeply passionate about our communities and caring for our neighbours.

I secured this debate because on my election I promised to give the people of Melton peace of mind; to create opportunity for us and give our town every chance to succeed; and to deliver a local economy that raises the standards of living for everybody—a fair economy that guarantees that everyone matters and no one is left behind. Like much of the east midlands, Melton Mowbray has been left behind. Through this debate and by working with the Government, I hope to change that, so I shall make the case that DEFRA should open an office in Melton Mowbray.

Melton deserves the chance to succeed. Our town has been identified by the Government as a town ready for levelling-up and investment, and we are a tier 2 priority area in the levelling-up fund. Even though we have a strong manufacturing base, our average wages are lower than the national average and not in line with house prices. We are the key centre for regeneration and growth identified in the whole of Leicester and Leicestershire, yet too often we lose out.

The east midlands has the lowest levels of public investment of any region in the United Kingdom. Because of the way the local government funding formula is calculated, both Leicestershire and Rutland suffer from under-investment as rural areas, despite the fact that it costs so much more to deliver services in rural areas. For example, if Leicestershire County Council was funded at the same level as Surrey, it would have an additional £104 million to support the people of Leicestershire. The east midlands also hosts only 5% of the civil service, which is the lowest level in the country apart from Northern Ireland, and only 1% of those civil servants are at the senior civil service level, which is again the lowest level outside Northern Ireland.

Too often, policy is detached from our communities and from the industries and people for whom our civil service regulates and makes policy. It is clear that the east midlands does not have a loud enough voice in policy making, and it is against that backdrop that I am pushing for a DEFRA office in the Borough of Melton. On every score, this project is right for the places for growth programme, right for the country and—it goes without saying—right for the east midlands and for Melton.

I argue that DEFRA needs Melton Mowbray, too, because we need to make rural policy in our agricultural heartlands, not just on Marsham Street, surrounded by the white buildings of Westminster. We should not be reliant on field visits by policy officials to see our incredible countryside and meet farmers and environmentalists. Surely we want DEFRA officials to work from offices where they can see from their window a thriving breeding-sheep auction, as they reflect on sheep welfare, biodiversity or environmental management; where they can pick up lunch from the farmers’ market or town food stalls and meet workers from food factories in local cafes and shops; and where green fields abound.

I have heard it said that two cities are in contention for DEFRA’s office outside London. I urge the Minister to consider the message that it sends when even our rural policy is set from cities. DEFRA plays a huge role in setting agricultural and food policy for the entire UK, so there is surely nowhere better to call home than the rural capital of food. This Government believe that putting policy makers closer to the experience of farmers, food makers and land stewards will create a more joined-up farm-to-fork environment for policy development and its real-world impact. I agree, so let me set out our offer.

We are an agricultural powerhouse and major food-production economy. Our countryside in Rutland and Melton alone has more than 100 farms of every type—arable, sheep, pig, poultry, beef and even bison. Nearby Rutland is a major centre for bird life and hosts the annual Glastonbury of bird-life festivals. Melton is home to one of the oldest and largest town-centre livestock markets in the country, with everything from alpacas to sheep to cows to peacocks to horses on sale, depending on the market that day. We also host the national traditional and native breeds show.

In Melton, the rate of employment in food and drink-related manufacturing is significantly higher than the national average, with around 3,000 people employed in the sector in 2017. Two thirds of our manufacturing is food related, and Melton was one of the first food enterprise zones in the UK. The Minister will forgive me for tempting to strike awe with my exhaustive list, but here are some of the household brands and outstanding food producers to which Melton is home. Samworth Brothers owns and produces Ginsters pasties, Soreen, Melton Mowbray pork pies; owns the West Cornwall Pasty Company; and is one of the largest sandwich providers for supermarkets in the UK. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Mars Petcare owns Pedigree, Whiskas and Royal Canin, and its Waltham Petcare Science Institute is the UK’s leading scientific authority on pet nutrition. Belvoir Fruit Farms makes the best elderflower pressé in the world and would be happy to stock Parliament at any time. The famous Long Clawson dairy makes outstanding cheeses, such as Stilton, Rutland Red and many more, and the Arla factory makes even more standout cheeses. The brewery Round Corner Brewing has won more global gold medals for its beer than any other brewery in the world over the last three years, including “best lager” in 2019—that might pique your attention, Mr Speaker.

The incredible Brentingby Gin distillery makes outstanding award-winning gins. It stepped up during the pandemic, and rolled out sanitiser for free to care homes across Melton. We have Nice Pies and Brockleby’s pies, and the first-class Cidentro cider house. We are even the leading producers of paneer cheese, and of tofu for the Japanese restaurant market. Food is in our blood, and food heritage is who we are. Melton is the Rural Capital of Food, and our town hosts the national pie awards, the largest cheese fair in England—it concluded this week—a chocolate festival, and the East Midlands food festival. Civil servants would never find themselves short of the highest quality food celebrations.

Our offer extends beyond our existing farming economy. If DEFRA were to open an office in Melton, we could offer educational opportunities to support civil servants. Brooksby Melton College in Melton is an exceptional specialist land-based college, with an agritech centre, commercial farm, rural catering centre and even a quarry. It is an outstanding college. Nearby Loughborough University offers agriculture and related sciences courses for policy officials to undertake. Nottingham University is not that far away, with Sutton Bonington campus for veterinary sciences, one of the leading centres for veterinary medicine in the UK.

Not only does Melton Mowbray have a vibrant food manufacturing and agricultural economy and educational offer, we also have the Vale of Belvoir, which was mentioned in the landscapes review as a potential area of outstanding natural beauty. We are a leading light for diversification of farming and environmental stewardship. We have one of the largest abattoirs in the country, and we have an area rich in environmental leadership. Indeed, it is little known that it was in my constituency that Sir David Attenborough developed his love of fossils. There is much to be explored, and we cover many of DEFRA’s policy areas.

But it is not just in policy terms where Melton excels. Let me get down to brass tacks, and the practicalities of our offer. We offer an unbeatable location. Melton lies in the centre of the country, and meets the connectivity, space and logistical needs that the Government have outlined to me. In particular I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Agnew, and the Environment Secretary for the wise words of encouragement they have given me on this subject.

By car, Melton is within two and half hours of 80% of the country. It is just off the A1, with easy access to the M1. It is 20 minutes to Loughborough, 25 minutes to Leicester, 40 minutes to Nottingham, and 40 minutes to Peterborough. By train, London is only an hour and a half away. People can get to Birmingham in an hour and Cambridge in an hour and a half. East Midlands airport is 30 minutes away, as well as Stansted and Birmingham airports. People can go anywhere they need to get to.

Melton offers an ideal place to work for people across six different counties. I find it hard to believe that anywhere else in the country could offer employment to people from that many counties: Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire are all within striking distance. Some would even include Derbyshire, if I can extend to seven counties. This is an opportunity to create rural jobs for rural people.

There are many hundreds of rural villages within a 30-minute drive of Melton Mowbray across Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire. Indeed, I represent almost 160 villages in Rutland and Melton alone, all of which are looking for high-quality rural jobs close to home. There is a semicircle of nearby cities that already host civil service offices. It is the perfect opportunity for civil servants to go between different Departments and gain skills.

We are ideally located, and we even have office space ready to be occupied. Both Melton Borough Council and Pera Business Park could house between 500 and 2,500 civil servants almost immediately. Pera has 129,000 square feet already ready, and it would design the office space around the needs of the civil service. Both those sites are in the centre of our town. They overlook the livestock market, town market and train station.

It is also important that the home of DEFRA’s new office offers an outstanding quality of life to civil servants and policy makers. In 2020 The Sunday Times announced that Melton Mowbray was one of the best places to live in the whole of the UK, so Members will forgive me if I take up the challenge of listing as many things as I can, as quickly as I can. In Melton, we have: hundreds of outstanding pubs, including the Anne of Cleves, the Stag and Hounds in Burrough on the Hill and, nearby in Rutland, the Olive Branch in Clipsham, which is this year’s best pub in the entire country; Twinlakes, a wonderful children’s theme park that my son adores; excellent state and independent schools; a thriving local market and amazing independent shops such as Luna Rayn; vintage classic car nights on Fridays; the award-winning Eye Kettleby Lakes; Ragdale Hall, one of the best spas in the country and one that I will make it to at some point; an iron age hill fort in Burrough on the hill; Belvoir castle, where “The Crown” is filmed, which has an incredible diary of events from fireworks competitions to re-enactments of the civil war and a fabulous shopping and dining offer at the engine rooms; 140 acres of lakes, trails and children’s play areas right in the centre of Melton country park; the stand-out Ferneley’s farm ice cream, which people travel miles to enjoy; Vine Farm Dairy’s milk shed, which is secretly stocked with amazing cakes that I am sure have no calories in them at all; phenomenal garden centres such as Gates—we all know the British people love a garden centre—Melton theatre, with panto when it reopens; and fantastic sports facilities for all the family, from flying across the sky to the two new 3G football pitches that are being built. The pork pie army at Melton Town football club are always looking for more fans, and I am confident that they would welcome civil servants heartily. Of course, we also have nearby Rutland offering incredible outdoor sports on the famous Rutland water.

Those are just some of the things that saw Melton voted the happiest place to live in Leicestershire, with life satisfaction levels at an all-time high. There are so many more amazing businesses and people that I wish I could mention. Melton would be delighted and well-equipped to keep the DEFRA team filled and fuelled with cheese, pork pies, beer, gin and outstanding food and drink alongside the most beautiful countryside, an outstanding quality of life and some of the warmest people in our country.

When I proposed DEFRA’s potential move to Melton, I could never have expected the extraordinary outpouring of support from every corner of the community. Institutions and people from every walk of life, from our borough council to farmers, businesses and local religious leaders, have all stepped forward and said, “Yes, this is the opportunity for Melton. This is the right one. We would not ask for any other Department to come to Melton. DEFRA is in our blood. It is the right thing to come to us.”

I pay tribute too to all the MPs who would have come to the Chamber this evening, had I been able to join you in person, Mr Speaker—unfortunately, I was pinged by that pesky app. I thank in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), for Bosworth (Dr Evans), for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), who have all stood behind the proposal and agree that it would bring jobs for their residents. They recognise that the east midlands would benefit from DEFRA coming to Melton. They want those jobs, they know it makes sense, and they know it would offer opportunities for their areas, too.

For too long, Departments have been detached from those they seek to represent, support and regulate. That is what our Government have set out to change. By opening an office in Melton, DEFRA would have the chance to be closer than ever before to every aspect of its work—except perhaps fishing. The Secretary of State may make a pitch to open an office down in Cornwall—or in Scotland—and I would fully accept that alongside Melton Mowbray being the core hub outside London. Policy makers could work in the most beautiful part of the country in a wonderful town, with the Vale of Belvoir and Rutland on their doorstep and with the full backing of the local community.

If we are trying to connect parts of the country and Government in ways that augment the Government’s ability to develop policy while boosting local economic growth, there is simply nowhere better for DEFRA to find a new home than Melton borough. The people of Melton need these jobs. They need policy roles. We are experts in agriculture, but we do not have such policy roles in our community. We have people who want to find senior roles, but those roles do not exist. This move could provide them.

The people of Melton are welcoming and generous, and I know that they are waiting with open arms to offer a new home for the hardworking members of our civil service. They are waiting to do their part in this programme of national renewal. They are waiting to offer DEFRA a new home. They are waiting to take up the employment opportunities that it would bring. They are waiting for this to transform our town, and they are waiting to see rural policy made from the rural heart of our nation. They are waiting for the Government to say yes. I very much hope that the Minister will visit—and that you will visit, Mr Speaker—to see the amazing potential that our wonderful town holds and the home that it could offer to the Department and employees alike.

The people of Melton are offering an open hand. I hope that the Government will step forward and, in taking their hand, revolutionise rural policy making in our country and prove that they will level up not just cities but our rural communities as well. That starts with Melton Mowbray.

That was a very passionate speech, and how could I not take up the offer to visit? I just say that Handley’s, Bowen’s and Hall’s pies in Chorley might give you a little run for your money. I certainly know that Cuckoo gin and Rivington beers will be there as well. But I want to hear from the Minister; I think the case has been very well put.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. I feel a trip coming on, perhaps as a duo—don’t you?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing this debate, making such an impressive case for her constituency, and indeed speaking up for her constituents. She is such a champion and a great voice in this place. I am genuinely sorry that she is not here in person tonight, but we know the reason for that. However, she is no less passionate for being on the screen.

I do welcome the suggestion of Melton Mowbray being a possible location for DEFRA and I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s proposals. What a rosy picture she paints of Melton Mowbray, perhaps, Mr Speaker, even rivalling Chorley in Lancashire and Taunton Deane in Somerset. There is no doubting that Melton Mowbray is a hub for both agriculture and food production. My hon. Friend listed a huge range of products, including, of course, the famous pork pies and Stilton cheese. I must say that I am rather partial to a bit of Stilton myself. I did not realise, though, that it is where afternoon tea was conceived. There is such a list of mouthwatering food businesses there that I am slightly fearful for the waistlines of any DEFRA staff in future. We will have to think carefully about that and bring in some exercise regimes alongside.

I know that my hon. Friend has already raised this with the Secretary of State, so she is leaving no stone, or pork pie, unturned. The Government have committed to moving 22,000 civil servants out of London by 2030 under our Places for Growth programme, as I am sure she knows. This is an important part of our plans to level up all parts of the country. She quite clearly touched on levelling up.

The DEFRA group has a clear purpose: to safeguard and enhance our natural environment; to support our food, farming, fisheries and forestry industries; and to sustain rural communities and protect against flooding, animal and plant diseases, and other natural threats. This means that our work is truly nationwide: for example, maintaining flood defences from Skegness to Totnes; visiting farms from Malvern to Melton; protecting our critical national infrastructure; and improving our rural and urban environments in all quarters of the country.

DEFRA is actually already highly geographically dispersed owing to our operating model. Our UK-wide footprint enables close proximity to our customers and stakeholders and underpins our emergency response role. The DEFRA group has 200 locations across the country—I think my hon. Friend will agree that is a significant number—and 85% of DEFRA staff are already based outside London. All our arm’s length bodies are headquartered outside London and are deliberately rooted in places where they are close to the communities we serve and accessible to local labour markets with the skills we need. I am sure she will be aware that the new Office for Environmental Protection has just been located in Worcester, which is exactly the sort of rural place that she is raising the case for. Proximity to the correct and most useful kind of skilled labour force was one of the key things that made that a suitable place. Obviously, there were others, and all the right boxes had to be ticked, but that was one of the issues, as she mentioned.

We now have an opportunity to further strengthen our connection with communities across the country, supporting the levelling-up agenda by having more staff outside London. The east midlands is an important area for DEFRA and our delivery bodies. We currently have over 1,200 staff in the region representing the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency. At present, there are six DEFRA sites within 30 miles of Melton Mowbray—in Leicester, Derby, Rothley and Sutton Bonington, and with two in Nottingham. Together, they accommodate more than 400 staff from our core Department and delivery bodies. That provides a sound foundation on which to grow our presence in the area, and potentially we can consider Melton Mowbray as a future location for expansion.

Looking slightly further east, we have an even greater footprint across East Anglia, including a cluster of key offices in Peterborough, soon to consolidate into the new Government hub in Peterborough, and two of our delivery bodies—the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee—are headquartered in the east of England. DEFRA is committed to maintaining a strong presence in the east midlands, and we are keen to explore opportunities to connect with our customers and communities in the region.

Melton Mowbray is a key part of our rural economy and agricultural supply chain, as my hon. Friend highlighted, with assets including the Melton agricultural college, numerous major food producers and the food enterprise zone. I commend the work that my hon. Friend has done with the all-party parliamentary group on geographically protected foods. Of course, Melton Mowbray is home to two geographical indications that have already been mentioned—the world-famous pork pies and Stilton. The people and businesses of Melton Mowbray are exactly the customers DEFRA serves daily, so it is right to consider whether more could be done to bring more of DEFRA’s public service closer to the communities it serves in Melton Mowbray and places like it. Of course, we must weigh up value for money, the office space available, local labour markets and proximity to stakeholders, along with many other factors.

The Government are committed to making sure that all Departments are looking beyond London, and DEFRA will play a leading role in that effort, ensuring we do our part to level up all parts of the country. My hon. Friend makes a very sound point: levelling up really needs to include rural towns too. I come from a not dissimilar area, and I think she makes a very important point. She also raises the attractive proposition of how lovely it would be for staff to wander out in that amazing market town and see the livestock market in action. I have spent a great deal of time in livestock markets. My husband was an agricultural auctioneer. There is something unique about those places, so I was captivated by the picture she painted of her livestock auction and the myriad things it sells.

I have asked my officials to include Melton Mowbray as a potential location for a new DEFRA office. It will be considered with all other options, and will be subject to the usual disciplines, such as securing value for money, and all the criteria that will have to fit the DEFRA operating model.

On that note, I shall conclude. I thank my hon. Friend for her stellar performance up there on Zoom and for her work to identify viable options for DEFRA in Melton Mowbray. I really do look forward to discussing this further.

House adjourned.