Brexit will give us back the countryside, as well as our country
Escaping the Common Agricultural Policy will preserve rural landscapes and lifestyles
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was designed to support the small farmer, and it is fair to say it has failed to achieve that purpose. Because subsidies have been calculated by acreage, they both push up the price of land and benefit those who own the largest chunks of it — which means absentee agribusinesses. The CAP is indeed one major cause in the decline of the real rural economy — the economy of the small farmers who live and work in the fields. Leaving the EU is our opportunity to devise a new system of subsidies, one that will achieve what the public really wants from farming, which is not only food, but the two precious attributes that large-scale agribusiness threatens: beauty and bio-diversity.
In the 200 years since the Romantic movement, the British people have identified the landscape as an icon of their inheritance. Urban residents feel this as strongly as countryside dwellers. We believe that the landscape is ours, regardless of where we reside or how we earn our livelihood. Proposals to build on the green belt, to drive motorways through unspoiled valleys or high-speed trains across precious corners of our country are greeted, rightly, with the most vigorous of protests.
This shared sense of ownership has affected the way the countryside looks. Our landscape is criss-crossed by footpaths, green lanes and bridleways; copses crown the hills and hedgerows divide the fields; wherever you wander you will find a passage through, with gates, stiles and hunt jumps opening each boundary to the legitimate visitor. The natural edges and corners of small-scale residential farming are also precious habitats, helping native fauna to survive despite increasing pressure from the human population. In short, compared with continental agribusiness, our traditional ways of farming have been an aesthetic and environmental success.
And that is the real reason why those ways of farming should be subsidised. Our small farmers are sitting on a highly valuable asset; their land. It may also be their only capital. But we do not allow them to realise the market value of that land. They cannot build on it; they cannot turn it into leisure centres or caravan parks. They are condemned by our environmental and planning laws to maintain its traditional appearance, even when it is no longer profit-able to farm it. This is the rationale for farm subsidies: to compensate farmers for the losses that taxpayers impose on them. Subsidies should help farmers to maintain what we love in our countryside, not add to the profits of those absentees who have done so much to destroy it.
We should begin from an inventory of the things that we love: beauty, bio-diversity, boundaries and habitats; wildflowers, birds and river life; footpaths, bridleways and the hospitality offered to those who ramble and ride; local food and the markets that deal in it. And we should then assign points to farmers according to the contribution made by their land to the greater cause, which is not the land but the landscape —the land conceived as a national, rather than an individual, asset. Subsidies should not be automatic, but weighted to compensate those who earn the least from farming, provided that their farming conforms to the standards set out in the inventory.
Perhaps the most important item in this inventory is the local food economy. Farmers whose produce is sold in a local market create a benefit that cannot be measured in pecuniary terms. They are maintaining a national food economy that is maximally resilient in the face of global changes and external threats; they are producing food that does not travel hundreds of miles to its destination; they are helping to loosen the grip of the supermarkets on our food economy and so protecting our town centres from decay at the hands of the predators perched on their perimeter; and they are amplifying the experience of neighbourhood, which is a vital part of what we cherish in the day-to-day rhythms of the countryside.
As by-products of all this, they are enhancing the beauty and bio-diversity of a countryside which, despite all our post-war upheavals, has retained its immovable place in the hearts of the British people. Whatever you think about Brexit, it is surely right to be pleased that at last we can devise a system of farm subsidies that gives us the countryside we want, with the support of those who live and work in it.
Published in Spectator Life.