Big issues for the countryside

This is my column from November’s edition of The Countryman.

What are the big issues for the countryside in the next couple of years? Here is a very partial list. Inevitably it omits many important things – bovine TB; energy generation (I wish we would also think about how to save energy); flooding and ‘extreme weather events’ linked to climate change etc. But here is my top five.

  1. Will EU environmental policies such as the birds and habitats directives survive Britain’s renegotiation? What will happen to them if we leave the EU? Will Britain outside the EU aim for high standards, or return to being ‘the dirty man of Europe’? And what about the Common Agricultural Policy, which has such a big impact on the countryside? There has been remarkably little thought given to alternative subsidy regimes.
  2. The Government is developing a 25 plan for nature in England. It wants us to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited it. This is great, as is the fact that the plan is led by Rory Stewart, one of the most impressive ministers I have encountered. But will the Treasury listen?
  3. The Chancellor wants quicker planning for big infrastructure projects like new roads and power stations. That is fine, but will we get a process that genuinely listens to people and heeds environmental concerns? Or one that simply tries to force development through? That would end in tears.
  4. Current housing policies are not working. Councils are forced to release greenfield land to meet impossibly high housing targets. The big builders then cherry-pick greenfield sites, ignoring brownfield sites within towns. The targets are missed by a country mile, but many miles of countryside are lost to development. Will the Government wake up to what is really happening on the ground and change course?
  5. Finally a decision must be made on airport expansion. Expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick would not only destroy nearby countryside; it would fuel development in the south-east and undermine the ‘northern powerhouse’.

The outcome of these debates will have a profound impact on the countryside for decades to come.

4 Responses to “Big issues for the countryside”

  1. 1 Phillip Ellis November 9, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    What about where is the drinking water coming from to support our enlarging population in the SE?

  2. 2 Andrew Carey November 9, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    “There has been remarkably little thought given to alternative subsidy regimes”
    What is this I read? The very presumption that there must still be subsidies just alternative sorts of subsidies. Here’s a quick recap of the subsidies that Shaun’s friends get.
    -Single farm payments ( the big one, aka agricultural subsidies )
    -Exemption from business rates
    -Exemption from inheritance tax
    -Red diesel
    -Exemption from what is now an emissions based Vehicle Excise Duty
    and a special bonus if you own the Duchy of Cornwall and Lancaster
    -the inheritances of the intestate

    Agriculture is an industry. So the obvious alternative is to abolish that lot and bring agriculture under Regional Development Aid the same as other industries.
    Job done. No more thoughts required.

    • 3 sspiers November 10, 2015 at 7:39 am

      Andrew, there is generally more thought required.

      Most of the things you list are not part of the CAP regime. The single farm payment is, as are countryside stewardship payments paid to farmers for maintaining landscapes and promoting biodiversity. I have no doubt that if Britain leaves the EU there will be people calling for an end to these subsidies. Farmers get a good deal of public money and it is right to question the value that the country as a whole gets from that.

      But because the consequence of simply ending subsidies would probably be socially and environmentally disastrous, I don’t think this option is likely to gain favour except with a few free-market fundamentalists in fringe think-tanks like the IEA.

      So the real question is what sort of farming and land management does the country want, and how should we pay for it? Do we aspire to greater food resilience? Do we want greener farming, with more wildlife and better maintenance of landscape features? Do we want to encourage new entrants to farming? Or do we want a system that only favours the wealthiest landowners – huge prairie farms in the east while farms in the west turn to scrub or houses.

      It is worth starting to think about these things now.

  3. 4 Andrew Carey November 10, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    So countries that don’t have farm subsidies are social and environmental disaster areas? There’s plenty to choose from. Would you care to take your best shot at naming one?
    And at the micro level you are effectively making an evidence-free claim that areas of the UK that don’t get farm subsidies have less biodiversity than those that do. Or else what is the point.

    Your a mild-mannered socialist at heart. Take this sentence “Do we want a system . . . ” which implies that some kind of system is desirable, it has to be paid for, and it has to result in outcomes we have centrally planned. There’s no need for this approach. Let people decide for themselves what they want their environment to be like – they’re a lot keener on biodiversity than you give them credit for, they just need to be set free.

    By the way, wealthy owners are currently protected ( see the comments about inheritance tax exemptions, Prince Charles and the other favours land-owning farmers get ).

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