Let us consider the uplands of the UK.
My little essay in the Manifesto for Wildlife set out a list of 10 actions to rejuvenate the uplands and to make our hills better for wildlife and for people. It has attracted a lot of enthusiastic praise as being far-sighted and at the same time a lot of brickbats for being heavy-handed and unfair to upland landowners. Either view is a bit odd, in my opinion, as what I wrote includes quite a mixture of current government and opposition policy, addresses some of the well-known and hitherto intractable problems with public land use policy and will provide a lifeline and safety net for many upland farmers.
This post is in three parts; I set out my own personal vision for the uplands of the UK (concentrating on England), I then briefly recapitulate how very far away we are from where I’d like to be and how the current situation is a mess that needs sorting out. And then I discuss my proposals from the Manifesto for Wildlife for how we get to a better place from the current shambles of ineffective flawed policy and ineffective practice.
An upland vision
I want our uplands to deliver for us: more wildlife, cheaper water, fewer floods, more carbon storage, beautiful landscapes, much greater recreational opportunities, sustainable and profitable businesses and good value for the taxpayers’ investment.
Who would argue with that?
My vision is mostly about public goods rather than about market goods. Yes, I’d like the uplands to produce some food for us (but they’ll never produce very much) and yes, I’d like timber production to be part of the mix, but more of that could come from more natural forests rather than plantations of exotic conifers.
We now know enough to value the uplands highly for the public goods that they could produce far better than they do at the moment. Whether you live in central London or on the Durham moors, you should be able to see that the uplands are working for you, and that your taxes are delivering benefits for you. Better water storage benefits us all – it reduces floods which harm people and businesses and if we get a grip of this issue then everyone’s home insurance costs will fall (not just those who live near upland watersheds). Cleaner water, not water that needs expensive processing by water companies, is good for all of us because the water bills will fall – again, for everyone. More carbon storage, in restored peat bogs where the carbon in peat builds up, and in a much broader coverage of natural woodland is good for all of us too – taking climate changing gases out of the atmosphere and sequestering them naturally and cheaply. More wildlife from a resurgence of avian and mammalian predators once wildlife crime is eliminated (who wouldn’t want to see Golden Eagles soaring over Yorkshire hills?) as well as the reintroduction of keystone species such as European Beavers to help restore ecological systems. And we should all enjoy these public goods. Our existing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty lack wildlife and lack much of a pull for those who love wildlife – we need to turn them into wildlife hotspots. But I can also see plenty of room, and a need, for cross-country skiing, pony-trekking, some game shooting, lots of fishing in restored wetlands, wildlife photography and rambling, mountaineering and hill-walking and simply getting away from it all. People should flock to the uplands for their weekends and holiday breaks. Even more, I could envisage new settlements being set up, holiday villages, with new transport systems, new roads and new public transport in order to service these needs. The uplands are big, there is plenty of room for more people, more wildlife and a much greater provision of ecosystem services.
And yes we can produce some food and forest products too – but whereas the main value of lowland farming will always be to produce food the main value of the uplands should be recognised as being public goods, non-market goods, but goods that are of immense value to society.
An upland failure
Photo: Adam D Hope / Hill Walkers on the Swire Road
Our current uplands are over-grazed, over-drained, over-burned and underproductive. They are not the tourism hotspots which they should be and they are poor for wildlife. They have some fine views but they are actually ugly wildlife crime hotspots where protected species are persecuted by criminals. The public gets a raw deal – we are paying for this mess through our taxes which go to upland landowners in income support that props up inefficient practices and we pay for it through our water bills and home insurance too.
And it’s not as though upland communities are thriving as a result of all this investment. Trying to make a living through the production of market goods is a struggle in the uplands – it’s trying to master the ecology of these wild places rather than working with the grain of nature.
At the moment, hundreds of millions of pounds are paid by the ordinary taxpayer to large grouse shooting estates who produce nothing for the ordinary taxpayer and inefficient upland farms to maintain a way of living in the hills. Neither provides good value to the taxpayer and it will be the Countryside Alliance and the NFU, representing, in some strange way, the vested interests of the recipients of this bizarre funding which will shout most loudly for the status quo. It’s hardly surprising that the beneficiaries want your money to keep coming with no strings attached.
Towards the sunlit uplands
Photo: Sorensenalisha [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
If you agree with my vision for the uplands then you have to engage with the current politics and figure out how to get from the mess we are in at the moment to a much better place. This is an issue for all of us, because we are paying directly through subsidies for the current land use which delivers so badly for us all and we are paying for the environmental damage that results from private landowners pursuing private profit through unsustainable land use.
The first thing that will help deliver this new vision is Brexit. I voted Remain and I am still hoping that we stay in the EU but if we don’t then delivering this upland vision could be one area, one of rather few in my opinion, where a Green Brexit is possible with political will and bravery.
The first step is already government policy in England (and Wales I think but I get a bit confused as to how this works); removal of direct subsidies. The Agriculture Bill will phase out subsidies to landowners by 2027.
This will have the biggest impact on upland farmers whose incomes are very highly dependent on the current payments. Many will go out of business. Those who own the land on which they farm will be looking to sell up, to cash in their chips, and they’d probably be well-advised to do this sooner rather than later.
Let me point out again that this is government policy – not one thought up by a bunch of independent nature conservationists in the Manifesto for Wildlife! The consequences of this policy shift are unpredictable, they always are because people’s reactions are complex and don’t always appear rational to economists (but then economists don’t always appear rational to normal people). However, selling up is certainly an option and one could imagine the consequences of that being much larger upland landholdings, perhaps sheep ranches which operate in a more intensive manner even than now – that’s not what we want but that is a potential future under current government policy.
So how do we prevent that? We step in and buy the land ourselves. Not ourselves as individuals but ourselves as the state. This isn’t nationalising the uplands so much as buying land so that we can deliver our better vision for the uplands ourselves directly rather than at arms length through complex policy mechanisms that will involve further payments to upland land owners.
And we can find the money to do this partly from the savings we make in removing subsidies and partly because it will look like a very good investment to deliver our better upland future. It’s ‘Public Money for Public Goods’ rewritten (just for the uplands) as ‘Public Money for Public Ownership for Public Goods’ – simples!
We’ve done this before, although so long ago that people tend to forget it ever happened. We set up the Forestry Commission 100 years ago (next year) because of a national need to produce timber (top of our minds were pit props for the mines – times move on). David Lloyd George’s government did not go down the ‘Let’s incentivise private landowners to do this’ route, they saw having a strategic timber resource as a national priority and could see you needed land on which to grow trees so the FC acquired land and grew trees.
Whatever you think of the FC (and I am generally, on balance, a fan) it is the country’s largest land manager (700,000ha (210,000ha of which are in England)) and it makes NE and the Environment Agency both look inept compared with FC’s ability to get things done on the ground.
I’d be very happy to take the risk of giving an FC-like body the job of acquiring land through purchase or very, very long leases and then delivering the mixture of blanket bogs, recreation, species reintroductions and increased woodland cover that we need in the uplands.
The main alternative, and current government thinking as far as it is visible, seems to be to continue to give short-term grants for ever to those private land owners who opt in to voluntary schemes. Under this model the benefits gained are expensive and not guaranteed beyond the short period of a grant scheme (say 10 years). To secured environmental good practice in perpetuity costs an absolute fortune. This was called, long ago, by the then boss of Natural England, Helen Phillips, as ‘renting’ environmental outcomes rather than securing them – and she was quite right.
Buying land to deliver public goods is not a very radical move – that’s what nature reserves are! If the RSPB asked for your money to manage a site for 10 years with no certainty that their good efforts would last longer than that then you’d probably tell them that it didn’t seem a very good deal. Similarly grant schemes in the uplands aren’t a very good deal either once you get into the mindset that we want ecosystem services ahead of food production in upland areaas and we want them for ever. Of course, if we change our minds then we can flog off the land in a few decades time – but I bet you we won’t want to do that.
The Labour Party’s idea (in the last manifesto and repeated recently) to renationalise (deprivatise) the water companies is a good idea except it isn’t clear that Labour has fully appreciated all the merits of their proposal. I think Labour has only got as far as thinking ‘If private companies can run the water system and pay big salaries to their executives and big dividends to their shareholders then why can’t the state do that but channel more of the profits into cheaper water bills for all and/or money for other public benefits such as the NHS’. I think that is how they have come to their position. But they don’t seem to have twigged that state ownership of land, much of which would be in the uplands, would also allow other public benefits to accrue. All that burning for grouse shooting could stop. All that snaring and trapping would stop. It would be much more difficult for wildlife criminals to kill birds of prey and escape prosecution too. A much larger range of public benefits would be feasibly produced.
I can see a place for continuing grant schemes for good environmental management but the basis of those schemes (in the uplands) should change. They should be much longer in duration – decades not a few years, and an element of the public payments should be a down payment on purchase of the land eventually – otherwise our money inflates land values for private profit, and merely rents environmental assets rather than securing them. Landowners might not like that, but then the schemes are voluntary. A landowner can enter them, with our conditions for getting our money, or not – their choice.
Photo: Eirian Evans / Sheep, Hiraethog hills
I keep stressing that this is my plan for the uplands – not the whole of farming. You might wonder why it doesn’t apply to lowland agriculture too. I believe that the primary aim of lowland land management should be food production. We need food and it would be wise to grow quite a lot of it ourselves because we have a good climate and good soils. But the primary value of the uplands is in non-market public goods such as wildlife, carbon, flood alleviation etc etc. with a bit of food production thrown in as a small part of the mixture.
I think we can best produce food through a whole lot of private enterprises knowing their land and having a stake in it and striving to meet market needs. But we know that if we don’t provide incentives for environmental good things then we’ll lose a lot of wildlife (as we have done) so public money to private owners for public goods seems a good enough model for lowland farming to me – maybe I’m not radical enough! But in the uplands, market goods are hardly relevant and my route to producing public goods is, I argue, fairer to the public, more effective and will provide a kind exit route for large numbers of small farms who will be up against it over the next few years as subsidies are phased out.
So, go back please, and read my essay in the Manifesto for Wildlife and see whether you agree with it or not. It identifies the problem, sets out a basic vision for the future, prescribes the area over which we should operate, describes how the vision will be implemented and where the money will come from. It’s a plan. It’s my plan. What’s yours?