WE ARE blessed with wonderful countryside in this area and so many of us benefit both physically and mentally from taking part in outdoor activities in the countryside.

The value of health benefits associated with outdoor recreation in the UK has been estimated as between £6.2bn and £8.4bn in 2020 and an estimated £2.1bn would be achieved through averted health costs if everyone in England had good access to nature.

That is why our Government has made a commitment that everyone should live within 15 15-minute walk of a green or blue space - such as a woodland, park, wetland, or river.

Our £14.5m Access for All programme is helping to improve access especially for those with disabilities.

The funding has enabled the installation of new gates, walking routes with wider paths, e-trikes, and motor scooters in many areas; also, when complete the new King Charles III England Coast Path will be England’s longest National Trail and the longest continuous coastal walking route in the world at 2,700 miles long.

It is good to see a number of farmers locally involved in increasing public access through Countryside Stewardship schemes too and many are taking up the nature options in the new Sustainable Farming Initiative schemes such as creating nectar-rich wildflower strips and managing hedgerows so that the countryside experience is becoming increasingly nature-filled.

Still, on a health theme, I voted in favour of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill that was vociferously debated in Parliament this week.

Shockingly smoking kills around 700 people every year in Somerset alone and it is the cause of many other related illnesses including lung and heart disease.

Nationally 75,000 GP appointments a week are related to smoking, and it costs the NHS £17bn a year.

I went to Parliament to help achieve a better future for generations to come, and this legislation will help do that by ensuring that children aged 15 or younger - anyone born on or after 1 April 2009 – can never legally be sold tobacco products.

By 2040, these proposals will ensure that smoking is phased out completely among young people.

This is about protecting our children and helping future generations to avoid addiction.

I wanted to touch on rural crime. Given the rural nature of this constituency tackling rural crime has been a priority of mine since being elected and I’m pleased to report that we have made some progress.

I’m therefore deeply disappointed with claims from the prospective LibDem Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) candidate suggesting that our police force is not taking rural crime seriously.

The truth is quite the opposite.

For example, the specialist rural crime team has now trained over 400 neighbourhood officers to help in tackling countryside-specific crime; and farmers and business owners can access support on a range of issues.

In addition, the Rural Crime Board, which includes representatives from the National Farmers Union and Countryside Land Alliance has reported a huge reduction in illegal hunting locally and Operation Ragwort, which is an intelligence-sharing initiative launched by the five South West Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) is a national first, that is helping to tackle organised crime right across our region.

I have been working closely with our own PCC Mark Shelford to make progress in tackling anti-social behaviour in our towns and villages and working collaboratively through my Anti-Social Behaviour Forum.

It is disingenuous for the local LibDem PCC candidate to make the claims that he did when the evidence is clear that the Conservative PCCs are delivering on their pledges to our rural communities across the Southwest.

Finally, on a completely different note, I have long been clear that the volume of sewage discharged into our waters is utterly unacceptable.

It’s why our Plan for Water, which I was pleased to instigate as the then Water Minister, means more investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement, tackling every source of pollution and ensuring swift enforcement action is taken against those who break the rules.

The Plan also included a commitment to create a new Water Restoration Fund, and I am pleased to say this has just been launched.

It will take money from fines and penalties imposed on water companies that pollute and channel it directly back into improving our waterways.

This builds on other actions recently taken including a ban on water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, subject to consultation; plans to quadruple water company inspections, and the launch of a whistleblowing portal for water company workers to report breaches.

I know just how important our precious waterways are to you all and the new Restoration Fund together with these other measures demonstrate that this Government is taking cleaning up our water extremely seriously.