Lets think afresh about Brexit for rural areas

The origins of the European Common Market lay in a trade arrangement over iron and steel in the aftermath of the WW2, but after this the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) became one of the earliest embodiments of the EEC and then the EU.  Originally the CAP was a means of managing agricultural production across Europe, preventing shortages and was a mechanism, in tandem with tariff barriers, to ensure the survival of much of Europe’s small farmers.  In recent years production subsidy has given way to a highly complex set of programmes that are intended to replace them with the purchase of environmental benefits from landowners on behalf of society as a whole.  The sub-text, however, has been much more about channelling money to small farmers in some very rural European countries as, without this, they would have experienced the same ‘flight from the land’ that occurred in the UK between the wars.

That ‘flight from the land’ occurred in the inter-war years of the twentieth century as a result of cheap food imports from the Empire.  Rural areas tended to lose population, farming land became derelict and the suburbs grew.  The impact of this gave rise to much of our current planning system after WW2.  It also gave rise to the creation of County Rural Community Councils in the 1920 and ‘30s.  We were set up to support rural communities and help overcome the poverty that, at the time, was synonymous with rural life.

During WW2, central control was imposed on agricultural production and this continued, along with rationing, into the 1950s and beyond.  By the time the UK joined the Common Market the British land based economy was used to a high level of government intervention and control.  Once within the Common Market the approach to intervention that worked for French farmers also had to work for British ones.  However, by then our farming community had become much more efficient and the production subsidies they received were a very crude instrument of intervention.

Production subsidy has given way to highly complex environmental measures, and the sense of ‘entitlement’ on the part of landowners and managers has now become embedded through several generations.  Many landowning interests – even Europhobe ones – are in the habit of referring to this as ‘their money’, forgetting that it comes from tax payers – and mainly urban ones.

Now that Brexit is a commitment, lobbying from landowning interests will take two parts: short term and long term.  The short term aim will be to press government to commit itself to honouring all current ‘contracts’ entered into with landowners for current environmental programmes.  Ideally they will press for current whole programmes to run their course at the current level of EU commitment.  Some of these contracts will run through to 2022, potentially several years after our actual exit from the EU.

The long term aim will be to retain a similar level of public funding but probably aimed at subsidising the business part of their activity and seeking to avoid some of the more onerous environmental ‘cross-compliance’.  This is what is often referred to as ‘bureaucracy’. The contrary view is being put by environmental campaigners who will want to see an even more rigorous regime by which money only reaches landowners only in return for strong environmental benefits.  There will, no doubt, be much talk of ‘ecosystem services’ – the code used by Natural England to ‘explain’ the benefit that the wider economy gets from having a well managed natural environment.  It is not hard to see which would be more electorally compelling, funding the NHS or funding ‘ecosystem services’!

However, there is an alternative approach that should be pursued by the RCC movement and other like minded rural organisations.

Britain’s rural and natural environment is one of our defining characteristics.  We lose it at our peril.  Market forces alone will not provide landowners with sufficient profit to be able to manage the land in a way that retains these characteristics.  Equally, market forces will continue to force the closure of rural services, push up the price of rural housing, fail to deliver good digital communications to rural people or improve access to education for rural young people.  The logic for continued intervention in rural areas is not to persist with poorly masked production subsidies for farmers but to have a ruthless focus on market failure where it fails to protect that which the whole of society values.

If we want a secure, home, food supply then we may need to intervene in the market for agricultural output; if we want a clean and secure water supply, but not to flood, then we will also need to intervene in water catchment areas. But, by the same logic, if we want a peopled rural landscape we will also need to intervene to make this possible.  Intervention where the market fails is needed to tackle disappearing commercially provided services.  It is also needed to retain services at risk of disappearing as the public sector increasingly uses the private sector as an agent for its delivery.

Jeremy Leggett

The opinions expressed here are my own but they are informed by the work of Action in rural Sussex

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