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Reclaiming our countryside

By Merrick Denton-Thompson
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. 
A new Rural Land Use Policy
A new Rural Land Use Policy for England could reconcile the conflicting demands being made on land. Take housing as an example. Noel Farrer, our President, has just analysed new housing being planned and built in his home town of Kendal in the Lake District. The centre of Kendal is run down and in need of investment and regeneration, but all the new housing is being located outside the urban fringe, in open farmland. This development pattern has abandoned the town centre, leaving it bereft of scarce capital investment and on-going revenue, at the same time exacerbating car travel away from the town centre to outlying superstores. Farmland, it seems, is expendable.

Renewable energy
Another competitor for land is the drive to secure renewable energy in various forms. Currently we are growing 42,000 hectares of wheat, oil seed rape and sugar beet in this country, all of which are being converted to bio-diesel or bio-ethanol for road transport. More obvious is the growth in photovoltaic farms cropping up all over the place and also of on-shore wind farms, along with their transmission infrastructure. Less obvious are the attempts at meeting the 5% national target for growing biomass as part of our renewable energy policy. The focus has been on coppice willow no matter which landscape type it is being planted in and yet before the 1920 Forestry Act numerous under-wood stand types existed, many of which would be appropriate for the production of biomass. Coppice stands of hazel, ash, small-leafed lime, sweet chestnut and field maple could be grown, all of which create very distinctive landscape character.

Resilience to climate change
We need to prepare ourselves for further changes in weather patterns as a result of global warming. There is an urgent need to build in resilience, in particular managing the water environment through changes in land management, to increase holding capacity away from urban areas and planning slow release to enable drainage infrastructure to cope. But we also need to be concerned about the quality of the water itself. For example, the water company serving the urban areas around Brighton is forced to import water to dilute the level of nitrates in the drinking water caused by farming in the South Downs National Park (a nice word for this is ‘blending’). The capital cost of the infrastructure to enable the water to be safe to drink is being funded by the water-rate payers. Surely it is time for society to accept that clean drinking water is as much a valued outcome of farming as food is? We should be paying the farmer to produce clean water.

Sustainable food production and biodiversity
Being self sufficient in food production would require a reduction in food waste and a transformation of our diet, but that assumes that our current farming system is secure and in good hands. The cold, hard fact is that chemical-driven food production systems are unsustainable and that we have to participate in transforming the industry.

You might not want to just take this from me, so I have extracted a few punchy statements from Henry Edmunds, a farmer who presented a paper at the 2014 Oxford Farming Conference. Among other things, he said:

• The European support mechanism has effectively made farms less self-sufficient and more dependent on agri-chemicals and mechanisation.

• There is apparently only enough phosphate for another fifty harvests. The resources of plant nutrients including nitrate are finite.

• The more we discover about the chemistry of the soil and the complicated interaction between fungi and bacteria, the more obvious it is that chemical intervention is nothing more than a crude tool of short-sighted expediency. These chemicals can be directly toxic to the whole spectrum of animal life including ourselves.

• Today 90% of all the fish in the ocean carry traces of pesticides in their bodies. Even Emperor penguins in the Antarctic have DDT in their body fat. Analysis of ground water taken from a bore hole at the depth of 80 feet near to where I live revealed pesticide and nitrate levels grossly exceeding those permitted under Drinking Water Standards.

• Why for example were neonicotinoids licensed, when there was a wealth of data available that demonstrated the dire effect that they have on pollinating insects and bees in particular?

• Glyphosate has been found to cause the mass death of amphibians

• Everywhere signs of the failure of conventional farming techniques are becoming more apparent – top soil is being lost one hundred times faster than it is being formed.

Henry farms his 2,500 acre Cholderton Estate in Wiltshire organically and it is our intention to explore his approach to farming in a later edition of Landscape. His is an example of a commercial farm using the power of natural resources for its economic viability. His comments about soil are common knowledge and yet so little attention is being paid to it. The biodiversity of soil, or the lack of it, can no longer be ignored.

So, finally, how can we set meaningful agendas for rural land and how it relates to meeting the needs of a largely urban-based population? What should the mechanism be for securing a balanced approach to land use and all the competing interests?

National Character Areas
We are extremely fortunate in the achievements of Natural England in completing its work on modernising the National Character Areas map and supporting data. It uses local names, which means that it identifies places that people can relate to. Because the project maps areas of common, baseline, characteristics, the agenda can be targeted efficiently. By definition the areas map the interaction between humanity and natural systems, prior to mechanisation and chemical use, and so they provide the framework for transforming agricultural systems to produce safe and affordable food, sustainably. The National Character Areas should form the spatial plan for the multi-functional countryside covering the topics raised in this article and many more. It would depart from standard spatial planning because it would integrate development with land and resource management, something the planning system should have done a long time ago.

Having set the agenda at a landscape scale, we would suggest a system where the farming industry responds by preparing a simple farm-based management plan which forms the basis of a contractual agreement. That agreement should major on collaboration and incentives, banishing regulation to back-stop status.

The landscape profession, its landscape planners, architects, scientists and managers are already contributing quietly to this agenda. It was the landscape profession that pioneered landscape character mapping; it contributed to setting up the Countryside Stewardship scheme, it sets the boundaries of protected landscapes, it leads the designation of land as Heritage Land for relief from Inheritance Tax and it does a remarkable job of assessing the various impacts from any development and mitigating against them. But we must do more. 

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