Growth was top of the agenda when DEFRA Minister Richard Benyon MP, paid a visit to South Devon College.
After meeting with the Fishermen's Mission and College Staff, the Minister hosted a public meeting at the University Centre.
Many voluntary wildlife groups attended alongside representatives from the fishing industry, Dartmoor Preservation Society, Dart Harbour Association, South West Coastal Path Association and South West Marine Archaeological Society as well as the Mayor and local Councillors.
Many of those attending were concerned about how to address the struggling coastal and rural economy. The Minister began by stating his optimism that coastal communities could play their part in a 'renaissance' of growth and stability in the local economy provided they had the essential tools to do so. One such example was the recent £530 million project to installing high-speed broadband in rural areas and Torbay.
As well as developing infrastructure, Mr Benyon also highlighted the 'raw deal' that local constituents had from their water company, South West Water, which remains the company with the highest water bills nationwide. As a result, the Government had recently introduced a reduction of £50 on each household water bill with further plans to reform the industry in the future such as a review on water bills every five years. He stressed the investment being made and jobs created by South West Water. One key area for discussion was the consultation on the establishment of Marine Conservation Zones, MCZs. The Minister is planning to designate 31 of these around our coast which will mean a quarter of our inshore coastal waters are covered by areas of sanctuary. Organisations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds voiced their concerns particularly in light of the recent mineral oil pollution incident which has killed many hundreds of seabirds. The Minister assured the meeting that this is being investigated and those responsible will be prosecuted for this environmental vandalism.
As well as changes to the European Marine Fisheries Fund (formerly the European Fisheries Fund), the Minister expressed his keenness to reform the fishing industry and end it's 'top-down' structure highlighting the particular need for fairness and sustainability. He is pressing for a regionalised 'sea basin' approach and making progress on reducing discarding of fish by making sure that fishermen can land their whole catch.
Several attendees voiced their support to retain the rescue helicopter and Brixham Coastguard especially in light of the recent event of the tragic death of local fisherman Andy Westaway.
South West Coastal Path Association also voiced concerns over the retention of funding they received from Natural England, the importance of green tourism to our area was referred to by several people.
The Minister said that there was still plenty of work to be done and that he was keen to get the balance right between rival groups on delicate issues such as the environment, adding that rural growth and the natural environment shouldn't be seen as poles apart. If we can increase fish stocks through areas of sanctuary this will benefit the environment and our vital fishing industry.