The government’s consultation on the future of agriculture closed last week. Policy Manager Ben Brown shares the LI’s thoughts on the proposals
closed on 8 May. Their proposals – for a new UK support scheme for farmers and the environment to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – have been widely discussed.
The rumours are that Defra have received responses in the tens of thousands. Given that there are about 140,000 farmers in the UK, some of whom could lose big money, this is probably unsurprising.
It’s fair to assume that not all of those responses will read: ‘Sounds good. Carry on.’
The LI wants to see the billions of pounds of public money that will be spent go towards improving, not worsening, agricultural landscapes. If the current proposals survive, we could see the opposite.
For those who haven’t yet got their head around the details, here are five things the CAP’s replacement must do, and why it matters for landscapes:
1. Be bold
The current CAP costs the UK about €4bn (£3.5bn). The ‘£350m per week’ on Boris’s buses? It’s a healthy chunk of that. The problem with the ‘let’s spend it all on the NHS’ argument is that it would mean taking millions of pounds away from this pot, which keeps our farmers in business and our environment healthy. (At least, that’s the idea.)
Leaving the EU mustn’t result in unhealthy hedgerows and polluted water. That means Defra must maintain the budget level, and use it to improve the widest possible area of land.
2. Target the spend
Assuming Defra do maintain the budget, they will still need to decide which environmental outcomes to prioritise. If the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ is to have real meaning, we will have to get serious about funding environment outcomes. This means looking at causal effects, and funding those with the greatest benefit. £3.5bn will buy you about 120 million bird boxes, at the current Natural England rates. What would the measurable outcomes of that be? (A lot of happy birds is a safe answer.)
3. Use a landscape lens
At the moment, most of the CAP money goes directly to farmers, with some green conditions attached. A much smaller amount goes towards specific environmental schemes.
Meanwhile, some farmers talk to each other. (Some even take part in successful Farm Clusters.) Some don’t. Some government agencies talk to each other. Some don’t. It’s fair to say that cooperation could be better.
We need a framework to bring everything together. We need to ensure that we’re not nurturing something with one hand that we’re spoiling with the other. Crucially, if we want ordinary people to care, they need be able to see noticeable improvement to places they care about. That means landscapes.
4. Use what’s already there
In some places, effective connections already exist. The National Parks, for instance, provide a framework for working together and deciding on priorities. The new system will definitely need to empower designated landscapes and ensure their management plans have clout.
But where does that leave the other 77% of the UK? Just as we have local economic partnerships (LEPs) that ignore local authority boundaries if they’re not economically meaningful, so we need landscape-level partnerships.
Step forward, National Character Areas (NCAs). Created by Natural England, the 159 NCAs provide a holistic framework through which measurement can be undertaken and priorities set. (In fact, .) There is no need to reinvent the wheel when these – and other, more bespoke frameworks, such as the catchment-based approach – already exist.
5. Develop the skills
None of this is possible if we don’t have the people to do it. We’ll need a new generation of young skilled farmers, of course. But those farmers are almost guaranteed to fail if they can’t draw upon an ecosystem of robust evidence, talented land managers, an aligned planning system, etc.
We’re already expecting an awful lot of farmers, some of whom have enough trouble keeping the lights on. If the Brexit trade negotiations don’t go as planned, that’s only going to get harder. One way we can support them is by making sure that the UK’s land managers (for instance) are the best in the world, that they’re skilled and supported, and, most importantly, that we have enough of them.