We all have a stake in the British countryside

Yesterday, WWF-UK, RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust set out our call for a new approach from the UK and devolved governments to our countryside and wildlife.

At the heart of this new approach should be a new way to support farmers, one that recognises and rewards them for their role as custodians of the countryside. Drawing on the principles that Helen Ghosh outlined at her speech at Countryfile Live in the summer, the four groups are calling for policy to be based on recognition that

  1. The countryside is for food, wildlife and people, so we all have a stake in the future policy
  2. Nature should be abundant everywhere, not just in protected areas
  3. Public payments and new markets should work hand in hand so that it’s profitable to manage land in a sustainable way
  4. It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it, with farmers and landowners supported to restore and integrate nature into their businesses
  5. There needs to be coherence with wider policy and delivery

Our four organisations are looking forward to debating these with politicians at the Conservative conference this week.

Today we’ve heard a bit more about the Government’s overall approach to leaving the EU, with a commitment to transfer across into UK law EU directives and regulations where they’re not already integrated. This is what we expected and would give the Government machine the headspace to concentrate on the actual terms of leaving, and the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU and globally.*

This matters for our aim in restoring a healthy and beautiful natural environment. If farmers are facing tariff barriers on food exports, then whatever is left of farming subsidies could well go into just keeping their businesses afloat against unfair competition. This would miss the chance that the end of the Common Agricultural Policy offers, of moving to a better system of public support for farming that pays for public goods, rather than the current subsidy which is mainly based on how much farmland you have.

Leaving the EU is going to be incredibly complicated, and doing it with the ticking clock of the two-year Article 50 process isn’t going to make it any easier. Defra ministers and officials have been open so far about engagement, but there is a danger that the Government overall hunkers down to decide on its negotiating position and doesn’t draw on the input of those who will be affected or with an interest and expertise in the area.

So it shouldn’t be the case that scrutiny and engagement is avoided on the grounds that it’s too premature to discuss the Government’s position, and then that the position is negotiations are too confidential to discuss it, and then finally that it would be too late to do anything about it.

We’re not calling for a “running commentary” from the governmment, but it’s one reason why we think some kind of policy commission on land would be worthwhile, to help explore and advise on the complex relationship between trade, farming, nature, environmental protection legislation and funding options.

As our colleagues at WWF said about our proposals, “We all have a stake in the future of the British countryside. Whether we are farmers, the government, conservation groups or city dwellers, we all need to work in partnership to achieve a countryside rich in nature alongside vibrant communities and a thriving rural economy.”

Richard Hebditch, External Affairs Director

(*Though key to this is who gets to change or drop EU rules after the UK leaves, and what kind of Parliamentary and other scrutiny there is.)




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