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Wales needs an urgent national conversation about what it want from its land post-Brexit

16 Sep 2018 6 minute read
Picture by Phil Dolby (CC BY 2.0)

Rebecca Williams, Country Land and Business Association (CLA)

Welsh land matters.

These words open the recently-launched Welsh Government Consultation about the future support mechanisms for farmers and foresters in the post Brexit era.

This proposes details and schemes of how we can support farmers and foresters differently outside the confines of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It represents a unique opportunity but has the possibility of being a banana-skin for the future of farming in Wales. Livelihoods and the future of many businesses are at-stake.

In parallel, the Snowdonia National Park and its partners are consulting on its initial proposals for ‘Cynllun Eryri’ – a Partnership Management Plan – for those who have an interest or responsibility in looking after the area.

The objective again is to create an innovative approach to land management which represents a step change in how we manage this land –benefitting the whole community.

In many ways, both documents are similar: they offer facts and evidence of current use and they outline the challenges and suggest opportunities.

However, as we scrutinise the detail presented in these two documents posing very specific questions, are we reducing the debate to ‘what we know and what can be fixed’?

We must ask if we should take a broader and longer view at the questions arising around farming and land management.

How can big government help small farms and rural businesses?

The title of the Welsh Government Consultation reads ‘Brexit and our Land’.  But what do we mean by the term ‘our” and what is our relationship with the land?

Some 80% of Welsh land lies in the hands of farmers and foresters in private ownership. For these people the concept of land is very much personal.

It goes deeper than the concept of an asset – it’s a life’s work (or many generations’ work). It represents the life inheritance for future generations, and it’s “home”.

But we also have to consider that land is part of the basic physical structure of the country.  Arguably, generations of subsidy and support from the public-purse earns the representatives of the people a say on what we do in the future.

Equally, the rural community has communicated a powerful message that “the countryside matters” to the wider community – with a compelling message that it is there for all to benefit from.

Clearly, then, society in its widest sense, has a stake in the countryside and a role to play in shaping its future. This raises the question: –

What do we want from our land?

The answer has always depended on your starting point:

  • Some farmers want to continue to farm productively
  • Conservationist want to see measures that reverse the biodiversity decline of recent generations
  • The Government is willing to support measures to deliver their statutory obligations and international targets– clean air, renewable energy carbon sequestration
  • The National Park exist to protect the nationally significant landscape, wildlife and cultural heritage within its boundaries
  • The ‘Public’ want –
    • So-called food Security is often an emotive and over-simplified argument and while maintaining a strong and stable supply is strategically important, the reality is much more complex. We do not generally eat what we produce and while there are opportunities to change this balance, we do not grow avocados!
    • Access -For the majority, this may be using the well-manicured paths with convenient carparks a picnic-table and often a nice place for a coffee at the end – but the concept of open access to the countryside is never far away.
    • The aesthetic of the countryside to be preserved Today’s countryside is the product of generations of farming or land management and what value should be placed on this.

All this tells us that the conversation about a future where land delivers for the people of Wales requires a deeper discussion than the one we are currently having.

So, what next?

Brexit may have created these new conversations, but actually they were already in the making, and the discussion about our land and its function in twenty-first century Wales are long overdue.

Many of the above interests are in conflict.  But the real question is how do you balance these demands and prioritise?

The answer is that a new approach is required which changes the relationship between some irreconcilable priorities – and focuses than on a common goal.

An exclusive relationship between farmers and the Welsh Government as paymasters is no longer possible without delivery to wider agendas. Economic viability is still a must to keep farmers on the land and to sustain the countryside as we see it.

But as society prioritise rewarding farmers for the benefits they really value, the scale of the change from isolated businesses to contributors to a range of ‘public goods’ alongside production should not be underestimated.

To bring about this level of change will require support – financial and physical infrastructure, training and cultural development, and critically time.

Why hasn’t this happened already?

While the CAP has been the comfort blanket, market forces have been subdued by greater political goals. We cannot say that change has not taken place, but it has both protected and nurtured the farming industry. Farmers cannot be blamed for that.

Equally, the large-scale support-system exists across the Union and arguably change has been too difficult to bring about. This was one of the fundamental arguments of the Leavers in the referendum debate.

But now those shackles are lifted and questions turn to our ability, and possibly confidence, to make the changes work in a post-Brexit world.

Where do we go from here?

The two consultations – by the Welsh Government and Snowdonia National Park – offer an ambitious vision and a unique opportunity to change the relationship between land and society.

The new world is likely to see farmers and landowners recognised for delivering highly valued public services and often taken-for-granted benefits such as clean water, flood alleviation, habitats and wider biodiversity, and the unique landscape.

No longer can it be a polarised battle of food or environment – the land can, and must, deliver both.

This should create not only a new and better land use industry – but also benefit the wider rural economy – and create a closer relationship with the urban community and corporate Wales too.

Welsh Land certainly does matter. When we respond to the two specific consultations we must also be aware that the future of the rural community requires us to answer these Big Questions honestly and to look at farming differently to maximise the returns from our land.

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