Well that was a bit of a shock. In the absence of exit polls I was looking at what the betting markets were doing – all the money seemed to be piling in on shortening odds for Remain. The Bookies will have done well out of yesterday’s result.
For the moment, I will focus on farm subsidies as this is a huge change – the biggest change as far as nature in Britain is concerned. I have written previously on a number of occasions critiquing the sort of things that the Leave side have been saying, about what a post-Brexit farm subsidy system would look like. Now we will have the chance to find out whether anything they claimed will actually happen.
What would a farm subsidy system look like that would really help nature? Firstly, the idea that landowners receive a subsidy just for owning farm land (artfully attacked by George Monbiot yesterday) must go.
Payments should only be made where direct public benefits are created. Food production per se is not a public benefit, at the farm level. This is simply because the farmer can sell the food to whoever they wish, and that means it may end up in China, not here. Public benefits would include preventative measures such as protecting high value nature where it still occurs on farmland (those precious few places), reducing or eliminating the pollution of rivers and the sea by farm effluent and pesticides, conserving soils (and their carbon) improving animal welfare etc; and positive measures such as creating new wildlife habitats (including rewilding), encouraging people to come to farms to experience nature etc.
Regulation is absolutely essential to underpin the payments system. Growing crops like Maize near to rivers should just be banned. I have previously suggested a “polluter pays” approach for environmentally damaging crops, so farmers would have to pay extra if they wanted to grow them, this money being used to directly ameliorate the impacts they have on the environment. I think it would be worth looking at. Farmers hated the CAP-drive cross compliance process, and yet it was mostly toothless. But it’s inevitable that there will need to be a system to check that any money spent on farm subsidies is spent on public benefits, so this is an opportunity to design one that is not onerous on farmers, and also works as far as checking compliance goes.
The system needs to recognise that landscape features on farms are already delivering public benefit and deserve support, as opposed to the crazy system that the EC had adopted of mapping out every single tiny “ineligible feature”, forcing farmers to destroy scrub, hedgerows and ponds, in order to claim subsidy. I’d turn the whole thing on its head and start by recognising that farmers who have lots of landscape features receive a payment for maintaining them.
There’s a great danger that production subsidies will return, particularly headage payments in the uplands. This would be a disaster and all calls must be resisted.Without CAP subsidies many upland farms will be simply uneconomic. If sheep farmers left the hills, what would happen? The ensuing vacuum might draw in large scale afforestation, for example. This would be good if it was a mix of trees which benefitted nature, but obviously not if it was just serried rank of conifers. So lobbying is needed to make sure it’s the former rather than the latter. And we are not living in the 1950s, the Forestry Commission is a very different beast and I think it highly unlikely that they would support a return to mass conifer afforestation of the hills.
There will also be calls for “payments for ecosystem services”, using a natural capital approach, where every item is costed on some spurious basis – £25 for bee habitat, £50 to store floodwater. This should also be resisted. Farmers do deserve public support where they deliver public benefit, but area payments are the best and simplest approach to providing that support. The most public benefit (eg if land is recognised as having high value for nature – as an SSSI) should be paid the highest amount.
What about agri-environment schemes? Bearing in mind it’s inevitable that there will be much less money available for farm support, any funding directed to agri-environment schemes will need to be spent very carefully. Obviously funding is needed to support the management of high nature value sites like SSSIs and other valuable sites, many of which need restoration. Creating new habitat should be supported to:
- Expanding an existing small area with high value for nature, for example to increase the chances of a threatened species surviving, or to make management more economically viable (eg creating new areas of meadow around an existing fragment)
- Supporting landscape-scale restoration in areas where nature is still found at the landscape-scale. Further support for Nature Improvement Areas would do this.
- Support for creating habitats near urban areas to enable people to visit and experience nature near where they live (ideally in walking or cycling distance).
- Support for large new near-rewilding or rewilding projects, such as Ennerdale or Knepp.
In truth though I think the pot of money for agri-environment will be small. Other sources of funding may well be needed.
I may return to other issues later, but I may just go for a very long walk.