INTRODUCTION: THE FUTURE OF THE UK COUNTRYSIDE

Brexit offers significant opportunities and risks to agriculture and the environment. As the UK leaves the EU, arrangements under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will need to be replaced with new agri-environment policies that are more suited to the UK’s agenda. However, as with any change in policy, the new laws that will replace CAP could go either way: we could achieve vast improvements in our countryside, or we could fail to safeguard it in an adequate state for future generations. The uncertainty we are faced with has unsurprisingly, sparked a great deal of conversation about how we might formulate new agricultural policies and environmental laws. This blog post reviews the opinions and proposals that have been visible so far in the public domain, as articulated by lobby groups, government officials and farming organisations.

The organisations most active include Greener UK (an alliance between 13 environmental organisations), Green Alliance, the Royal Society, the National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England. There have also been numerous reports produced by the House of Lords and the NFU, speeches made by the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, and policy briefs published by academics. By reviewing the conversation that has emerged over the summer of 2017, it is evident these groups agree on replacing CAP and creating a policy which is fairer to farmers and more beneficial to the environment. In this sense there is at least an impetus to grasp the opportunities associated with Brexit. The agri-environment policy proposition attracting the most interest and support is the ‘public money for public goods‘ policy.

‘Public money for public goods’ would involve paying public subsidies to farmers, but in reward (and recognition) of the public services they offer. Public services go beyond the realm of the food sector and include soil and water management, access to landscapes of cultural heritage, flood protection and biodiversity conservation. There are many variations of how such a policy could be implemented, however the general point stands – the UK farming sector, the government and environmentalists all wish to implement a new policy that will not only safeguard the current state of our natural environment, but also work to improve it for future generations. Indeed, Michael Gove has spoken of a ‘Green Brexit’, where the UK could become a global leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

Gawith and Hodge (2017) suggest one avenue for a ‘public money for public goods’ policy, outlined as their ‘Ecosystem Services Policy’. Under this framework goods and services would be purchased publicly and privately from the landowners and managers in the best position to provide them. Private investment would be required in order to facilitate public money, and could be brought in through the creation of new markets for environmental goods such as flood protection. The creation of new markets to facilitate private investment has been recognised as a necessity by many actors. Indeed, it is unlikely the government will be able to match the current £3 billion subsidy offered through CAP. In particular, Green Alliance and the National Trust have collaborated to develop and trial a Natural Infrastructure Scheme. This would be an area-based market where groups of land managers could sell their ecosystem services to local investors.

Despite a great deal of support however, there are a number of barriers that may inhibit the ability to implement a ‘public money for public goods’ policy. In this sense Brexit still presents us with significant risks, even with the desire and motivation to improve upon current EU policies. In fact Greener UK have produced a ‘Brexit Risk Tracker’, which outlines the security of particular policy areas. ‘Nature protection’ and ‘farming and land-use’ are regarded as medium risk policy areas. One of the biggest barriers for a ‘public money for public goods policy’ is the future of our trade laws. In particular the UK’s post-Brexit trade-policy will affect the ability of farmers to compete on the global food market, thus affecting their capacity to uphold our high environmental and animal welfare standards. Michael Gove has stated that the UK will be able to compete through marketing our high quality produce as ‘green’, however this suggestion does not fill the NFU and Tenant Farmer’s Association with a great deal of hope. For farming to flourish they need answers now, to prevent their vulnerability to fluctuations in harvest seasons and the economic market.

Furthermore, we currently lack the administrative capacity in government and within our local authorities to roll out a new agri-environment policy encompassing such significant change. The work currently required includes defining and valuing a set of public goods, stating specific environmental targets, deciding on regulation and setting out how we ensure participation. These demands are incredibly challenging, especially defining and valuing public goods, a task which is highly subjective. In addition, individuals will value public goods differently according to their own sets of values and where they live. In this regard, no matter how great or small the monetary value of a public good, there will always be farmers, local people and private investors who would disagree. In essence the difficulty of putting a monetary value on environmental goods may reduce the viability of a ‘public money for public goods’ policy.

Finally a significant change to agricultural and environmental policy requires us to consider how the countryside as a whole will be affected, not just the farmers and the environment, but also the people living and working there. This is an issue that has been highlighted by Greener UK and the Royal Society. Indeed, changing direct payments will affect the economy of rural areas as a whole, job markets and also rural demographics. Engaging with the public and understanding their needs and wishes will be vital to ensuring we replace CAP with the best possible agri-environment policy we can. This blog has been set up to provide a space for further coversation regarding these issues, and in particular the future of the British countryside. By providing a series of questions key thinkers are asked to contribute to the online debate.  If you are keen to contribute yourself, please visit Can I contribute?

Author: Hannah Wynton, Department of Geography and Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge