Tony Hockley PhD is Director of the Policy Analysis Centre and a Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE.
When Farmers Weekly magazine used an image of five white male speakers to promote an event entitled “What does the future of farming look like?”. No irony was intended.
— Emily Norton (@emilymnorton) September 25, 2020
Like many working in policy I cannot recall the last all-male panel at a mainstream event. I suspect that most would also agree that the change has been for the better. It is now the case that most men who would bring value to a policy event will decline an invitation to participate in one that is comprised entirely of white men of a certain age. Whoever organised the September 30 Farmers Weekly event was probably just lazy and unimaginative, rather than prejudiced. But this speaks volumes on how much must change if the countryside is to live up to the rhetoric, to play a leading role in the pandemic recovery and to deliver a “Green Brexit”. If ever there was a time for fresh thinking then that time is now. This also requires fresh voices.
The UK has arrived at a point in which there is almost no connection between the population and the countryside that sustains its food and landscape. Divisions in debates around the countryside reflect this disconnect. There are very few voices of mutual empathy between the increasingly divergent worldviews. Positive progress needs an end to groupthink.
This year has shown what happens when a population cut off from the countryside are forced to staycation and have nowhere else to go. Decades of failure of engagement have led to huge damage to precious sites for nature. From the pristine ponds and biodiverse grazed heaths of the New Forest in the South to the summit of Snowdon, some of the UK’s best sites for nature have been driven over, dumped on (in all senses), and burnt by disposed barbecues. It is hard to blame the families involved, when so little has been done to engage for so long.
There is an opportunity to change this after the pandemic and outside the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farmers must be willing and able to engage, and to welcome renewed interest in our own countryside. Appreciation of nature and fears for its loss and for climate change are high. But few seem to connect these fears with the UK landscape, or with our own behaviours. We seem to worry more about the fate of the pangolin than the fate of the hedgehog, the adder, or the curlew. It is, of course, easy to blame others in foreign lands or faceless corporations, rather than look closer to home.
The Agriculture Bill includes public access, enjoyment and understanding of the countryside in its short list of public goods worthy of receiving public money. This needs to be a priority, not an afterthought. It is not something to be left to agencies, but for everyone in the countryside. Despite the alarming damage to precious landscapes in 2020, a warm welcome needs to be the default approach, not the “Keep Out” sign. This will be a far cry from the insular mentality of the CAP, where the occupation counts more than anything.
Outside the CAP we can now invest properly not only in restoring nature, but also in building understanding of it and in helping everyone enjoy the countryside sustainably. Inside the CAP those who would like to do more have had to rely on the National Lottery to support local, time-limited projects. The Agriculture Bill offer the chance to scale up; the Heritage Lottery Fund has, for example, allowed New Forest commoners to create a free toolkit which local primary schools have incorporated into their curriculum.
This is helping re-connect the next generation to the countryside on their doorstep, and its special nature sustained by centuries of common grazing. The new GCSE in Natural History is an important step in the same direction. There is no silver bullet, but without much greater inclusivity and engagement damaging behaviour will only get worse. Then those who access the countryside for the first time will only see barriers, warning signs, and policing.
It is too easy for those of us who benefit from regular countryside access to fail to understand the psychological and behavioural barriers to those who do not and who are often visibly “different”. The Glover Review of designated landscapes highlighted this collective myopia, reflected in appointments to our national park authorities. Landscape conservation has become insular and process-driven. Politicians cannot deliver adequate public funding unless the population at large appreciate the need and feel the value.
That is why, even from a position of self-interest, it is deeply dangerous for discussions about the future of farming to lack diversity. It not only excludes half of the population by gender, but also ignores wider demographic change: The proportion of the “White British” population in the UK is declining. The proportion of the population who are not White British or Irish is forecast to continue to grow, from 17.5 per cent in 2016 to almost 40 per cent over the next 40 years.
There is, of course, also a strong moral obligation to change. The events of 2020 have added emphasis to this obligation. Ethnic minorities in the UK and disadvantage groups of all ethnicities have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. Many of the towns and cities worst hit by Covid-19 are on the doorstep of incredible landscapes, but engagement is low. The pandemic has drawn attention to the health benefits of regular access to green spaces and of a deeper connection to nature.
Anyone who doubts that the countryside has much more to do on engagement would do well to read a blog by the earth scientist Dr Anjana Kathwa for the Council for National Parks. The future of farming after the pandemic and after Brexit must be very different to the past. Diversification of practice will need to be matched by diversification of culture if the general public are to be expected not only to put their money into the countryside’s public goods but also prioritise support for domestic farming within future trade deals. There will certainly be no shortage of alternative and very popular uses for public money as the UK recovers from the pandemic, nor of other priorities in trade talks. The future of farming really is a choice between diversity or decay.