LEGOs, Landscapes and Catchments – guest blog by @UKSustain farm campaigner @VickiHird


I am delighted to post another guest blog from Sustain’s Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy, Vicki Hird.


The rich debate about how we deliver new farming and land management support after we leave the CAP is getting stimulating. As we anticipate the White (Command) Paper on a new UK Agriculture Bill in 2018, choices are presenting themselves. How will new schemes work out on the farm? How will decisions actually get made? What unintended consequences should we consider in any change?

The following are ideas for the discussion ahead.

A three tier delivery mechanism

It has been constructive to see common ground between many of the stakeholders working on this – from the NFU and CLA to conservation and animal welfare groups. Recent reports by Sustain, the Wildlife and Countryside Link and Natural Capital Committee add more detail to the mix of ideas. Maintaining a significant level of support to deliver what we need and the ‘payment for public goods’ approach are pretty much accepted as desirable though we will see much debate over what the ‘goods’ actually are.

Equally complicated will be how can measure them – natural capital valuing and beyond. The public will need to see value delivered to feel their investment (tax revenue) is being well spent. That will need effective and useful on farm indicators and assessment.

Jumping ahead to dodge all that cluttered debate about ‘goods’ and measurement, it is interesting to contemplate how such schemes will actually be applied in practice. What does it look like on the eight floor at DEFRA and out in the farmyard? What are the governance methods?

At a meeting on farm indicators organised By Farmwel and the Farm Animal Initiative, I was interested to hear the ideas of Merrick Denton-Thompson, Chair of The Landscape Institute, someone who has worked through a number of decades of farm, land and planning policy. He proposes a new National Rural Land Management Policy articulated at a landscape scale that is easily interpreted and actioned by individual farms. Sustain’s principles for future support – based on health and wellbeing as well as economic and environment goals for farming – chime well with his. Publicly agreed outcomes could be delivered by collaboration between public, private and voluntary partners and finance.

There is a common call for pilots and trials for new approaches and learning from current and past agri-environment schemes. The Farm Cluster approach by Natural England and GWCT is one such pilot. As I have noted before it would be a mistake to call for simplicity as an outcome – we need context specific, well managed and adequately resourced schemes. Experienced agri-environment expert Steve Peel also made this point forcefully in his blog about the skills, timeliness and attention to detail needed if we want to actually achieve anything.

Looking ahead, what could the delivery structures look like to supply what’s needed? Some of what is laid out below is drawn from Merrick’s and others’ proposals. The ideas can be defined in three levels:

  • how national governments would be involved
  • the role of local communities, statutory bodies, the public
  • what does it mean in the farmyard

National – setting the overall objectives

At the national government level, each government could have a National Rural Land Management Policy integrating farming and the environment, forming the policy reference for public goods and natural capital and fitting with an overall vision for food and farming. An overarching UK framework would be needed setting an agenda and targets for the public money to be spent wisely and to ensure cross border priorities are achieved such as on climate, landscape and mobile species.

This would be signed off by the Secretary of State’s and Devolved ministers and would set the framework for landscape plans and objectives.

Local – Landscape approach to governance and allocating resources

Given that central government is not set up to handle local and live information about land use changes and opportunities some have proposed a local level of governance ie Local Environmental Governance Organisations (LEGOs), which would provide funding for locally valued ecosystem services and ‘fill in the gaps’ that arise from the operation of the national funds.

One approach could be that the LEGO could be grouped via National Character Areas (NCAs) which divide England into 159 distinct natural areas. Each NCA is defined by a unique combination of landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity, history, and cultural and economic activity. Their boundaries follow natural lines in the landscape rather than administrative boundaries. They would help form the framework for agenda setting, delivery, partnership working, integrating – public sector, private sector and voluntary sector collaboration. The maps describe what is there, appreciated and understood by communities and the different stakeholders.

They can be used to engage the public, crucial going forward and as blue print to build plan and vision for specific areas. For protected areas additional resources and information already exist to deliver additional protection, support and advice.

Whatever the acronym, the joint committee could be made up of local community reps, farmers and landowners, park authorities, conservation bodies, private sector and planners. They could use the National Character Area Maps and other objectives defined by the group in facilitated meetings to devise a Character management plan for the area which would be signed off by the Secretary of State but which would remain a live document subject to reviews and change. From this individual plans with appropriate indicators for progress for each farm in the area would be drawn up using the priorities.

Where needed, the plans would focus on specific issues for a specific area with general wildlife and environmental assets and characteristics – what did and does and could be protected, enhanced and restored and by whom.

Farm – Land Management Contract

At the farm/estate level, the scheme would ideally have a single point of contact representing the public sector with each farm/farmer, with the back office support from Government Agencies, Government Departments and Local Authorities. This point of contact could combine with a private accredited body maybe. But they would need a new set of skills, knowledge and would build a positive but impartial relationship with the farmer.

A farmer would develop with this contact, a multi-annual whole farm/estate Land Management Scheme agreement – one that farmers can work through with their advisor so it fits the farm and the catchment and the landscape as needed.

Farmers would do much of the on-going assessment themselves, and would have training if needed. and access to great business (and marketing) advice and mentoring so the business planning links with the agreed Land management plans. But there would need to be an initial agreement meeting, spot checks and an annual survey to discuss issues, look at new opportunities, compliance and so on.

The idea often mooted of ‘earned recognition’ – if you’ve had a visit by a Red Tractor standard  rep and got the all clear you are okay to go – is not really fit for purpose as this is not just about compliance. It needs to be better and built on mutual trust. As the blog of an ex Natural England staffer and the comments thread below it show – it all depends on the quality of the science, how it is shared and the scheme being resourced sufficiently to ensure a sustained ‘relationship of trust between adviser and land manager’. As he puts it “The story of agri-environment since 2005 has been one of tragically unfulfilled potential” and we should ensure we get the new system right by testing and pilots in the transition period.

One idea could be to equip each farmer with a new (waterproof) digital iPad ready loaded with key information, self-checking forms, coupled with training guides, access to wildlife identification tools, and even farm business data. Not as a gimmick but a way to ensure access to information and uniform, digitally accessible data is being recorded.

Data. There I have mentioned it and it will clearly be a key feature; one for another blog.

Finally some questions to challenge this delivery model:

  1. How would a joint committee at a landscape level be set up? Clearly it would have land managers and reps from statutory bodies (NE, EA, FC) but who else? The NFU, CLA but what about other land managers, the public in general and those interested in access, air pollution, good food (such as the Sustainable Food Cities network);
  2. Would the diversity of farms be protected and enhanced under this model? There is a need – well documented recently by CPRE – to protect that diversity and crucial to stop the loss of farms in England in particular.
  3. Can a national plan incorporate health objectives at a local level such as getting more fresh fruit and vegetables into schools so encourage more mixed horticulture for procurement, ensuring accessible countryside for all; and other similar measures that have wider public wellbeing benefit?
  4. Could local partnerships that emerge deliver on wider objectives such as providing a hub for marketing and coordination of delivery for local outlets, possibly working with the urban hinterlands?
  5. Is this really too complicated?

Vicki Hird is Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy at Sustain



About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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8 Responses to LEGOs, Landscapes and Catchments – guest blog by @UKSustain farm campaigner @VickiHird

  1. Vicki Hird says:

    Thanks miles. Seems so much going on that these debates low priority but hope get some reactions. V ________________________________

  2. Julian Jones says:

    Thank you for this posting …
    The problems here might just be encapsulated by your first sentence – “how we deliver new farming and land management support “.
    To be blunt does sound like a recipe for ‘far too many cooks’.
    Our farmland is very largely our support infrastructure; in a truly sustainable economy this will become apparent.
    Farmer-practitioners are not daft and if left to their own devices will create infinitely productive farming methods appropriate to their locale; and thus support us.

    • Vicki hird says:

      I agree it could become far too complex. at the same time we can’t leave it entirely to land managers not least because of the macro (multifarm) objectives but for many others too. I do think public deserve to have some say or at least know their needs and desires have recognition. We may lose farm support altogether if no goods secured.

      • farmwel says:

        Julian – you have far more faith in the good will and intentions of the majority of farmers than I do. Some are amazing, but we need the majority to be working for the good of the nation – so how do we achieve that now that we’re taking back control?
        The basic choice should be between the New Zealand model: no financial support and improved legal baselines for environmental and farm animal welfare – or continued support redirected at public goods: natural capital restoration, farm animal welfare, land access. The only option that should be right off the table is the NFU-preferred model of business as usual: lots of money; even less public accountability.
        I’d prefer the zero subsidy option if it weren’t for the fact that the market is so distorted, and the environment so degraded, in part because EU policy has encouraged retailers to push producers towards bankruptcy and rewarded farmers for intensifying.
        Public payments to restore welfare and natural capital are essential to ease the transition – but in my view so is public participation (if farmers want to see public support continue). Therefore an administrative layer that includes the public in priority setting is extremely important to start building both agricultural sustainability and accountability.

      • Julian Jones says:

        Thank you Vicki … ‘social complexity’ (ref 1) is already a huge problem and cost burden throughout our economy, not just farming. All best resolved as locally as possible.

        The 2008 FAO report Agriculture at Crossroads (ref 2) makes very relevant points, not widely acknowledged or certainly acted on by DEFRA; that broadly only agro-ecological methods can really or should feed the world going forward.

        We’re seeing that unfold but far too slowly and with a lot of confusion; the debate over glyphosate use and no-till as just one example of this.

        The farming sector may well struggle to maintain public support; it is at the least a privilege to own and work on farmland. The catastrophic environmental damage of past half century quite unforgivable as it arises from apparently intentional misrepresentation and profound misunderstandings; which continue.

        ref 1.
        ref 2. .

      • Julian Jones says:

        farmwel – Broadly agree with all your comments; not all farmers are diligent and presently the majority have been led down a technocratic blind alley. This can only lead to dystopian outcomes unless reversed.

  3. farmwel says:

    Hi Vicki – Great blog as always. As you know I agree with many of your points, which are very similar to Farmwel proposals. I’m especially keen to see a straight-forward outcomes-based farm contract that prioritises farm animal welfare and the restoration of natural capital. (It’s extremely hard to restore nature while continuing to farm livestock intensively.) I’m concerned by reports that government is planning a number of new funding schemes focussed on either welfare or soil improvement, etc.  This feels much more complex than necessary.  Good farm contracts, with attractive payment levels and clear outcomes, could deliver the combination of actions necessary to deliver sustainable and competitive UK agriculture without the need to break incentives up into different pots of cash.  In my view farm assurance schemes should be harnessed to provide advice, monitor annual progress, and sign off payments.
    With regard to questions 3 and 4 – it is hugely important that the UK establishes a National Food Strategy, which is owned and delivered locally.  
    A few years ago I took part in my village’s Neighbourhood Development Plan (in Wiltshire). Following the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework, the government required all planning authorities to draw up a Development Plan for new building/housing, and this was delegated to local level. The NDP was consulted and delivered by the parish council, with guidance from the Unitary Authority. Local people and stakeholder groups were formally consulted and engaged in the process which went through several stages of consultation.
    I would like to see something similar for food. National government should develop a National Framework for Sustainable Food, which highlights each of the issues/opportunities you mention and many more.  Based on the government’s goals each planning authority should then be required to deliver a Regional Food Plan, which is developed through a Neighbourhood Food Plan (similar to the Neighbourhood Development Plan process mentioned above).  Local people should be included at all stages – and once the Regional Food Plan has been adopted at planning authority level then the local authority, community councils, and other local stakeholders would have shared responsibility for on-the-ground change.  Priorities should be set nationally, adjusted locally, and given a statutory basis. Where local food plans already exist, for example Bristol, they have had an enormously positive impact.
    (Thanks for mentioning Farmwel, by the way.)

  4. Nimby says:

    What is crucial is for the public to see public benefit from their taxes?

    Some of the statements seem to read of an expectation or maybe a desire for a blank cheque approach and allowing local designs without framework (maybe I’ve interpreted too simply) “trust us we’re the guardians of the countryside” approach. As someone has commentated there are some absolutely brilliant farmers but there are ‘agri-industrialists’ who have created prairie-scapes and I would not want to see them rewarded for repairing their own (sources) resources they have knowingly trashed through poor husbandry. The countryside is so very different from that of my childhood and I’m not viewing through rose-tinted glasses. The State of Nature etc. reports with nauseating regularity the decline in biodiversity, grandiose schemes (eg HS2) threatens ancient woodlands and no doubt agricultural land so there is an evidence base that we continue to fail to address the decline in any meaningful way.

    As for Defra agencies remaining as they are, they have presided over a decline in bio-diversity and soil degradation so are they fit for purpose anymore? Yes, I’m sure NE have some good staff but far too many have become lapdogs to political masters and have in so doing lost the confidence of the public and some NGOs. They have failed to police breaches of compliance in some areas, perhaps for fear of complaints by landowners or their lobby groups.

    Yes we need a food strategy and along with that an accurate and accountable labelling system as the public need to know and understand the origins of the product and the processes involved in its production so they can make informed choices about any purchase they are considering? Trust and confidence has been lost or at the least eroded through some examples of abuse and fraud, this is an opportunity to get the public on board and understand what real farmers do?

    Let’s hope that this opportunity does engage with all stakeholders not just the usual suspects and that they (Govt & usual suspects) can actually get the public as consumers properly engaged given they are the funders of any schemes?

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