The landscape professions are having a great impact on our cities. Now it is time to turn our attentions to the problems of the rural environment.
The landscape profession is having an impact on the quality of our towns and cities, securing the best outcome for people and place. But can we claim that we are giving the same attention to ‘our green and pleasant land’? Our countryside is continuously being redesigned, through a myriad of incremental influences, where the objectives are far from clear. In my lifetime the countryside has been transformed by agriculture. It produces 60% of our food but continues to pollute our water, erode the diversity of character, impoverish the biological baseline and destroy the historic environment. On a very crowded small island, can we continue to keep town and country apart? The standards that we advocate for multi-functional landscapes in our towns are just as applicable to the countryside. New imperatives for the countryside include resilience to extreme climatic events, the need for renewable energy, restoring biological diversity, transforming the health of our people and, most important of all, repositioning our farming systems to secure sustainable food production.
With election fever gripping the country, what are the chances that our political masters will show any interest in the countryside? Under our largely conservative administration, Owen Paterson, when he was Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, reduced the target for the £500 million a year programme for the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, from the 70% Natural England achieved in 2013 to 35% of the countryside. The waste of public money is a scandal but the huge damage the decision has done in disenfranchising thousands of farmers who had cautiously entered the scheme is immeasurable!
The Conservative Party believes in a combination of free market and deregulation to make the countryside more productive. But the short-term horizons on which financial planning depends and the power of today’s agriculture mean that we cannot allow the free market to determine our countryside. It is only fair to the farming community for the public to both invest and to work collaboratively with it, in order to deliver the multi-functional countryside we all expect and upon which we depend. And what about the Labour Party? Well, not so long ago it advocated importing all our food! Labour does not support the current level of payments from the Common Agricultural Policy despite having limited understanding of the industry.
The European influence on our countryside is complex but dramatic. Take, for example, the removal of risks from farming by giving a guaranteed market and price in the 1970s and 1980s. This resulted in the disappearance of all but a tiny proportion of mixed farming, a change that has gone largely un-noticed by the general public. There has been a tendency for our government not to be proactive in moving the farming industry forward, because so many agricultural resources are held by Europe. Another thing that has remained hidden from view is the knock-on effect of the budget administration by the Rural Payments Agency with the threats of disallowance (potentially a huge financial penalty when claiming back European expenditure) discouraging even ministerial intervention, let alone devolving decisions and sound judgement, by other delivery agents such as Natural England. The European Commission is furious with the United Kingdom for failing to set out clearly for the public what benefits are delivered by the Single Farm Payment (the Single Farm Payment is worth about £200 per hectare per year to a UK farmer) – the person in the street thinks it is the Range Rover budget!
Administering the countryside
The administration of the countryside is complex and continually evolving. The responsibility for many of the conditions being administered by the Rural Payments Agency lies with local government, since successive governments have not been able to resist putting more responsibilities onto local government through the annual Local Government Act. The new Greening of Pillar 1 affects 30% of the 59 billion euro Common Agricultural budget in Europe. It is far from clear how the Greening relates to the existing cross-compliance conditions for the other 70% and how they will operate beside the new Countryside Stewardship. Protected landscapes need to be included in any review. For example, why do we have Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks where the designation criteria are the same, the only difference being that one is promoted for informal recreation and the other is not? Why is each of these responsible for setting the agenda through Management Plans but other agents have the resources for delivery and no obligations to deliver the Management Plans? Each of these public interventions is directing changes to the landscape, on a massive scale, but the changes are mostly by-products, the unintended consequences of a fragmented range of policies. The new Greening policy demonstrates that Europe is in the position that the UK was in the 1980s and that both have a long way to go to start the long haul towards achieving acceptable standards in sustainable food production.