Green and pleasant land? The countryside after Brexit

Posted On: 
2nd October 2017

An expert panel joined Defra Minister Dr Thérèse Coffey, in a discussion about how to ensure the best for the UK environment post-Brexit.

Credit: 
PA

“80% of our rules and regulations are directed by the European Union, and being free from this governance is an opportunity for us to be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better condition than we inherited it,” said Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey.

The minister joined a panel of experts as a Woodland Trust and Bright Blue fringe event on the Sunday evening of Conservative Party conference to discuss environmental protection after Brexit.

The mood was optimistic.

“It is true that the environment has no boundaries, we have shared rivers across places, but we have the opportunity now to develop policies that reflect our local environment and make it even better than before,” said the MP.

Leaving the EU would mean Defra could immediately get rid of some overly-bureaucratic rules, such as the Flood Directive, that simply create more paperwork, said the minister. But it would also mean coming out from under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which the panel agreed was doing more harm than good.

“It is arguably the single policy that has caused more environmental devastation to this country than any other and principally through over intensification of agricultural production with little regard for the wider effects of that production,” said Ian Bateman, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Exeter.

The CAP is also harming our tree-planting rates, warned the Woodland Trust’s CEO Rebecca Speight:

“It is a very complex grant system that puts people off planting trees” and, she warned, people have actually cut trees down because they were afraid of losing basic payments.

Going forward, an important part of the UK’s ‘bespoke’ environmental policy must focus on its farms, agreed the panel, as they count for 70% of our land use in the UK.

Currently, about £3 billion worth of funding already goes towards the agri-environment space. The majority of that is based on agricultural support and only 12% is based on specific environmental activity, a dynamic that everyone on the panel agreed needed to be changed.

“The status quo is absolutely indefensible. It is a bad deal for everyone including farmers,” said Professor Bateman.                                                                                                                        

He explained that 50% of what we classify as agricultural value comes from taxpayers through subsidies, which are distributed on a per-hectare basis. This means that three quarters of public money is captured by just one quarter of farms – many which specialize in intensive, high input, high output production.

“Taxpayers paying twice, once with subsidies and then again in the shopping basket.”

So, what can be done?

“Contractual relationships going forward need a reboot. Area based payment with limited conditionality will have to go and we must move toward a model that encourages public money going towards public goods,” said Ross Murray, President, Country Land and Business Association.

This was a sentiment the whole panel shared, believing that rather than paying for activities, the taxpayer should be paying for outcomes – ones that contribute to the environmental and public benefit.

Bateman called for the current system to be replaced by a basic income safety net, which will retain land for any possible future insecurity issues but avoids wasting money promoting over production and damaging the environment.

The minister backed the panel’s calls for reform, saying the balance needs to be struck between respecting the work that farmers do and environmental enhancement. The government must provide stability for farmers but ensuring that the money put in is encouraging the production of public goods, she insisted.

“That means support for woodland creation, tree planting, encouraging biodiversity, maintaining our standards of animal welfare.”

The University of Exeter Professor agreed, saying: “Levelling the subsidy playing field between farms and woodlands is long overdue.”

This is an opportunity for a new deal, said the Woodland Trust CEO. The future payment system should see payments going towards farmers who are doing basic environmental gain like managing their hedgerows well, or putting them in for those who plant larger scale woodland. 

The underpinning strategy of the 25-year environmental plan is about natural capital, said Coffey.

And by the government’s own assessment, planting the right woodlands in the right places offer enormous benefits, often those that are three or four times larger than the costs concerned.

“If you could take one thing that symbolizes what natural capital is all about, it would be the tree. The holistic benefits it brings, not just timber or biomass which are obvious economic gains, but great biodiversity, recreation, improved health and wellbeing. You name it, they can help.”

The “horrific descent” of planting rates, should be of great concern to everyone, said Speight. She warned that “we are nowhere near the targets that the government has set itself”, running behind by 12,000 hectares. 

Although the Woodland Trust is excited about the future of environmental law reform post-Brexit, there are some things they would like to see protected. Speight said that 80% of our environmental law comes from the EU at the moment, which they would like to see come across cleanly, along with some great guiding principles which “have truly driven true improvements in our environment.”

“This is a key moment for interaction between government and the environment. We have now to really do the right thing for our environment and therefore ourselves and if we don’t take that chance and make it happen now then I really do think we would have missed the best opportunity in generations.”

She continued: "There is an urgency that is not driven by our exiting of the EU, there is an urgency that is driven by what is happening to our plant, and the kind of future we want for our children. And we must rise to that urgency and respond to it.”