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Grasping the opportunity for the uplands

John Dower's report to Government in May 1944 saw farming as central to the special qualities of the areas that he identified for designation as the new National Parks. Dower saw little conflict between farming in the 1940s and the distinctive characteristics of these precious upland landscapes.

April 2018

Much has changed in farming practices and society since the 1940s, however, and over the last four decades this has predominantly been driven by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farming has become more mechanised and often more intensive. The proposals set out in the Government’s command paper are an opportunity to tackle the negative impacts of this shift and enhance our uplands so they provide even more public benefits.

With the right management, underpinned by the right support and advice, the upland National Parks should continue to be home to beautiful landscapes that provide high quality food and continue to play an important role within the visitor economy. But they could also be enabling more and better public access, contain more abundant and diverse wildlife, improve the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, have better protected scheduled ancient monuments and soils and habitats that are more effective at filtering water, combating flooding and storing carbon. But this will require change.

The Government has proposed to move to a system that provides public money for the delivery of public goods. This presents an important opportunity for upland land managers, who are best placed to achieve the changes we need to see in managing these areas to deliver more public benefits and the reforms are a chance to improve the resilience of these remote areas. But we must get the development of the new environmental land management scheme right. This is especially critical for farms that graze livestock because of their high reliance on direct payments. Defra estimates that 91% of farm business income for livestock farmers in Less Favoured Areas come from direct payments.

The command paper states: “many upland areas have the potential to benefit from new environmental land management schemes, given the nature of their landscapes and the many public goods that they deliver.” This absolutely should be the case. This is a chance to move away from the language of ‘Less Favoured’ and ‘Severely Disadvantaged’ areas and reward land managers with public money for maximising the public benefits our uplands can and should be delivering.

While the amount of money available for any new scheme is unknown, the Government has committed to maintaining the £3 billion funding for the sector until the end of the current Parliament [2022]. How this £3 billion is distributed once direct payments begin to be reduced is of course up for discussion, but there is a strong argument that the uplands should benefit more under the new system than they do currently.

But if that is to happen, getting the payments right will be critical. Current agri-environment payments are based on income foregone and costs incurred and it has often been argued that this is all that is allowed due to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. If we really are going to move to a system where we are paying for the delivery of public goods we need to be rewarding people for the public goods and the outcomes they are providing. We will need to stop, therefore, focusing on compensating them for the actions they took, or did not take, to deliver them.

The good news is that people who understand WTO rules better than I do have argued that they need not constrain our thinking and that value- or results-based payments are possible (see here and here). Meaning that the higher the environmental benefits delivered, the higher the payment. Current agri-environment schemes are cost based and are classed as meeting the WTO green box, meaning they are minimally trade and production distorting. A system that is truly based on rewarding the delivery of environmental outcomes that are a public good may well fall into the blue box – meaning the payment is considered trade-distorting but does not encourage production. WTO rules even enable payments that are both trade-distorting and encourage production, but there is a ceiling on these payments to limit them [this is referred to as being amber box support].

Wildlife and Countryside Link’s detailed discussion paper, A future sustainable farming and land management policy for England, rightly encourages the Government to be innovative and argues that WTO rules should not be viewed as a constraint in terms of creating payments that are effective and attractive Achieving this will be critical for the uplands, where farm incomes are relatively low, and therefore payments based on income-foregone have historically been relatively low as well. But if we are to achieve a new system that provides public money for public goods, as the Government has been clear that it wants to, it will require creative thinking and a change from the current approach under CAP. Perhaps even more of a challenge will be that it is likely to require Defra to stand up to the Treasury!

Fiona Howie

Chief Executive, Campaign for National Parks

Follow @FionaEHowie & @Campaign4Parks

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.