The Future of the UK Countryside: A Structured Dialogue with Fiona Reynolds

1)In your view what are the biggest risks and opportunities for farming and the environment upon leaving the EU?

Leaving the EU presents significant uncertainty for the UK, particularly for farming and environmental policy. However it also offers the first chance in over fifty years to ask what we want from farming and the environment, and design policies to achieve it.   Provided we take a long term, sustainable view, this could be good for our health and well-being, the relationship between town and country, provide certainty and clarity for the farming community and the future of rural areas, and protect and enhance the environment we depend on.

In particular we have the opportunity to improve agricultural policy so that it is better suited to and reflects the needs of UK farming and the environment here. Coupled with this is the potential to improve land management practices so that we sustainably manage our soils, generate greater public benefit and optimise farming’s multiple products (eg food, nature, landscape, cultural heritage, water management and biodiversity). Overall we should aim to be a ‘clean, green Britain’, although to achieve this this would require significant changes to current policies.

2) What do you see as the basis for future public payments for farmers and land managers? What, in your opinion, should public funding aim to deliver?

Under a new agricultural policy, the funding available is likely to be less than the £2.8 billion currently spent under CAP. The following areas should be prioritised:

  • the sustainable management of soils
  • integrated agricultural and environmental management to generate greater public benefits including for landscape, wildlife and access
  • optimising farming’s multiple products: the production of healthy food, looking after nature, landscape and cultural heritage, providing public access, and integrating water and woodland management (a sharing, not sparing approach)
  • better connecting people with the source of their food

A new farm policy should be simpler and easier to implement at a national level with appropriate incentives and requirements to ensure farmers deliver public benefit objectives set at regional and local levels.

3) How should public support for farming be offered? E.g. Direct payments, Agri-environment payment, or other forms of financial (grants or loans)/non-financial support (advice, knowledge-exchange).

There’s a lot of work to do on principles before the detailed mechanisms can be worked out, but as now there is likely to be a mix of mechanisms available. Money through direct payments is likely to continue, albeit it at a lower level, and there may be different options for distribution (eg the National Park Authorities have offered to be brokers in their areas).   Advice and non-financial support is already available from many charities and farming organisations and could be made more coherent and integrated. Government itself could return to being an advice-giver (eg ADAS).

And there are likely to be new opportunities for market incentives that will shape farming systems (see below).

4) Do you see any potential for private financing to facilitate/replace public payments?

 It is very likely that we will have to manage agriculture and the environment with less that the current CAP expenditure of £2.8 billion. Therefore it will be necessary to develop new sources of income, including the creation of new markets in environmental goods.

Recent work published by the charity Green Alliance and the National Trust has shown how new markets could be created to manage flood risk by paying farmers to hold water in upland areas; and water companies such as Wessex Water have pioneered catchment management systems which pay farmers to reduce their application of nitrates. The EnTrade system recently set up by Wessex Water in the Poole catchment is another example, which is securing dramatic reductions in nitrate use.

In future charities (eg the National Trust) may need, or be willing, to provide funding to deliver the objectives they need to secure to fulfil their charitable purposes.

5) What direction do you believe future trade policies need to take, and how might this affect future agri-environment policy?

Trade policy is vital for farming, and the terms of trade will shape the standards and quality of farming and farm products in the UK. It is vital we retain and indeed enhance our reputation as a ‘clean, green’ country with high animal welfare and environmental standards. Low or de minimus standards could be disastrous both for the environment and the UK’s reputation.

6) What impacts might the changes you envisage have on farmers and land managers?

They should be beneficial. Over the past twenty years, ‘green’ farming schemes have been developed which – where farmers have taken them up – have changed farm practice to deliver better environmental outcomes.   Farmers in receipt of these payments recognise the public value of what they do and are willing to deliver public benefits, and have benefited from the security of income and public support.

But the vast majority of farm payments have had no or few meaningful conditions attached, and these have been the source of much of the environmental degradation that has taken place through, for example, intensification of production. Farmers solely in receipt of these payments are now more vulnerable.

In future all farm payments, however delivered, should be demonstrably in the public interest and subject to conditions that meet public benefits. This will be a significant change for farmers but is the route by which continuing receipt of payments can be justified.

If there is no ‘public funds for public benefit’ link the likelihood is that the amount of money going in to farming will fall further, making farmers (especially on marginal land and in the uplands) even more vulnerable than now.

6a) What might the wider impacts be on the countryside/rural communities?

Much depends on how things turn out: the optimistic scenario is that the countryside will become an even better place to work and to live, where there will be greater access to public goods and overall a more healthy environment.

6b) How might you propose to mitigate the impacts? Do you think any additional policy measures will be necessary and what might these be?

As mentioned above, it will be vital that public money invested in farming delivers public benefits; and it will be necessary to create additional markets for environmental goods to generate new sources of funding.

7) What impacts might the changes you envisage have on the environment (farmland biodiversity; wider biodiversity; soil health; water quality etc.)

If we adopt the strategy outlined above, then the impact on the environment could be positive. Soil sustainability could be improved substantially, along with benefits to wildlife, landscapes and other valued features. Consequential benefits should include benefits to water management and quality and more sustainable management of woodland.

8) How might your proposals secure the government’s commitment to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it”?

To achieve that, current environmental protection policies and standards must be safeguarded through the translation of EU policies into UK law along with the retention of a method of legal enforcement. But to deliver the UK as a clean, green country, leading the world on green technology, eco-friendly products and services, and a sustainable farming system will require further legislation and a more ambitious, holistic view. To leave the UK environment in ‘a better state than we found it’ requires recovery plans for degraded landscapes and wildlife as well as defending the protection we have. We await the Government’s forthcoming 25 year plan on the environment with interest!

It will be challenging but if we are successful we could attract inward investment, green business and tourism, as well as providing great places to live and work in town and country.

9) What impacts might the changes you envisage have on visitor/tourists’ perceptions of the countryside?

Under this scenario the British countryside would be both seen and operate as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. This would be bring benefits to visitors and tourists and could lead to increased tourism, especially green tourism.

10) What would be your 25 year vision for the future of farming, the environment and the countryside in the UK?

In summary, a new policy for Britain would require the following:

  • sustainable management of soils – protecting soil quality should be at the heart of new farming and land use policies and incentives and regulation should be used to achieve it
  • looking at rural land use as a whole and in a more integrated way – e.g. incorporating trees, woodland, and management of water. Considering rural land use as a whole is central to delivery of public benefit
  • a new farming system which optimises farming’s multiple products: the production of healthy food, looking after nature, landscape and cultural heritage, providing public access, and integrating water and woodland management (a sharing not sparing approach)
  • securing better connections between people and the source of their food including transparent supply chains

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