Richard Benyon on life, family and his Newbury constituency
PUBLISHED: 13:49 22 November 2013 | UPDATED: 13:49 22 November 2013
The Newbury MP revels in the fiesty character of his constituency, where people have been keeping politicians on their toes since the Civil War.
Dispensing loaves ‘to the poor’, bad mouthing ragwort, supposedly conspiring against our native birds of prey and quarrying his own land. These are just some of the controversial topics to hit the headlines in recent years in relation to Richard Benyon, Newbury Conservative MP. Until last month he was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment, Water and Rural Affairs, but lost the post in a reshuffle.
Perhaps it’s unfair to begin by pointing out these ‘wobbles’ and run-ins with recognised ecologists, when there’s a front-page success story to shout about here, namely the reform of the fisheries policy, which he played a major part in. Among other things it meant that fishermen can no longer throw away edible fish over the side of their vessels.
It was inevitable that I was going to ask him about such headlines during our chat at the Englefield Estate office near Theale. The ‘ragwort issue’ for instance, had seen him embroiled in a Facebook war over what he called ‘a severe infestation of a poisonous plant’. Benyon found himself under attack from some leading ecologists who insisted he’d got the science and the facts all wrong.
I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction to expect as he must have been asked about them countless times. What I received was a reply that a more sceptical person might consider pretty ‘standardised’. He said: “There are some people that attack me because they perceive that I’m standing up for one particular group, and they perceive that I’m a kind of person that I’m not. I think their arguments sound so ridiculous that they diminish themselves by what they say. I don’t worry about them. I just get on with what we’re doing.”
Coming under fire is part of an MP’s job description, but as an ex Royal Green Jacket he’s no doubt had harder enemies to face than the British media.
Life father, like son
His father Sir William was an MP and it was he who sparked Richard’s interest in politics: “But I never wanted to become an MP. Quite the opposite, I had political aversion therapy because I saw how exhausted my father was and how hard he worked.” Suffice to say the therapy didn’t work as Richard was voted in as Newbury MP in 2005 at his third election attempt. He attributes his dedication and principles to Sir William: “What’s never left me is how fair he was to people. I went out with him once, many years after he’d stopped being an MP of the constituency he had in Bucks and I remember a Labour councillor coming across and his delight at seeing my father even though they were from different parts of the political spectrum. I thought if you can do that, and somehow transcend the petty squabbles of politics, that’s a good thing. He was a really decent politician.”
With five sons of this own, two with his wife Zoe and three from a previous marriage, it’s no surprise he’s already thinking about whether any of his boys will follow in his footsteps, as he did with his father. “I am desperately trying to put them off politics,” he answers, surprisingly. “I’m probably going to fail with one of them. My third son has just started at Bristol University reading politics and international relations so I rather fear he may be a lost cause to politics.”
Farming in the blood
Richard gave up involvement in his father’s Englefield Estate farm as a partner and in estate business because of his role at DEFRA: “But that doesn’t stop me looking in as I go for a walk on a Sunday or taking great pleasure when they do well,” he says.
There is at least a small piece of farming life that he has recreated for himself close to home in Ufton Nervet: “We now have a beef herd which is our absolute passion. They are pedigree Herefords. Zoe and I are very committed to the business and we show them at events such as the Royal Berkshire Show. They are beautiful animals, very good natured and they produce delicious meat.”
Unsurprisingly he is the first to champion the farming community, both in West Berkshire and the rest of the UK. Farmers as well as other businesses in rural areas have had a difficult time of late, something he is particularly concerned about: “A third of the businesses in this county are in rural areas and they suffer from issues that are a product of isolation, like poor public services and poor transport. We have to make sure that everything that government does involves understanding these factors. That’s why we’re spending lots of tax payers’ money, £530million, to get good broadband to places like rural West Berkshire and elsewhere. That single act along with improving the mobile phone service will help rural businesses thrive.”
He puts the hard time felt by farmers in the last 18 months down to a cash flow crisis bought about mainly by the weather, “only made worse by certain commodity price fluctuations”. He continues: “They’re a remarkable sector and their ability to survive is extraordinary. I go around the UK and I meet really entrepreneurial people running farms. Some have diversified so they run a variety of other businesses on the premises. The next generation of farmers coming though are very impressive.”
Berkshire through and through
There’s been a Benyon at the Englefield Estate since the mid 1700s. He and all of his family have become truly entrenched in West Berkshire life - both through politics and as landowners.
Having spent so long in the county, Richard thinks he has his electorate figured out: “West Berkshire people have a character that I really admire. They can be maddening at times, but what I like is that they don’t want to make life too easy for their politicians. I think some of them were voting for me in 2005 simply due to my ‘good attendance’.
“You can see a holy belligerence going right back to the Civil War. There were two battles around Newbury and the attitude of the town elders to both the Parliamentarians and the Royalist forces was wonderfully robust and I think that strand of not wanting to make life so easy for us politicians still exists in the town.”
But it’s not just the ‘robust’ residents he admires: “Here we have cutting edge companies such as Vodafone and Bayer, alongside medical technology companies like Stryker and Baxters.
Then there are manufacturing companies like Xtrac in Thatcham doing extraordinary things. This all sits alongside the Berkshire Downs, traditional industries like farming and racehorse training at Lambourn.
“I often sit at the top of the Pang Valley and look down at Compton and Aldworth and just think, ‘you can’t get much better than this’. I can wax lyrical about it but I have to every now and again make room in my diary to stop, look and soak it all in. This is a beautiful part of the world. We’re very lucky to live here.”