Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Ramblers' Association (A24)


  1.  The Ramblers' Association (RA) welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry examining the future of farming in the UK. We would particularly like to comment on the relationship between recreational use of the countryside with the food and farming sectors in terms of:

    (a)  the way improved stewardship of agricultural land can be promoted; and

    (b)  opportunities for agriculture by shifting emphasis away from production subsidies.

  We believe that improvements to agri-environment schemes are necessary in order to provide the opportunities that will benefit agriculture, the rural economy and the public.

  2.  The RA is a voluntary organisation founded in 1935 whose aims are to promote walking, to protect public rights of way, to campaign for access to open country and to defend the beauty of the countryside. We have over 208,000 supporters consisting of more than 131,000 individual members and 77,000 members of affiliated clubs and societies.

  The character of the countryside that our founder members enjoyed walking in at the time of the RA's formation in 1935 has immeasurably changed. This change has been brought about through the post-war agricultural policies that drove production targets upwards towards the aim of self-sufficiency in food production for the UK, through the intensively farmed and often degraded rural landscapes brought about by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to where we stand today facing the challenges brought about by the Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) outbreak. Our members are inherently connected to the countryside, and the farming practices that shape it, as the countryside provides the core reason for our members' walking activities. Consequently the RA has an interest in the ways that future agricultural policy mechanisms will affect the landscapes that the public enjoy when walking.

  3.  The visual qualities of the British countryside have never been static and the varied demands placed upon it have been a prime reason for changes in the appearance of the landscape. Today's situation is unique in that never before have the pressures of so many varied demands and expectations of the countryside been so transparently demonstrated and recognised. We have been forced to acknowledge that the countryside is expected to be a food factory, a living space, a business park, a playground and nature reserve. Within each of these expectations lie conflicting pressures: food produced in sufficient quantity but at high quality; somewhere to live that has an individual character but provides the multitude of services a community expects to have access to, whether in an urban or rural context and a place where those running local shops, pubs and B&Bs can make a living. It is also expected to be a place to recharge spirits in solitude and tranquillity, a place that provides ecological niches for every type of fauna and flora to flourish in, a source of minerals, and military training ground. And so the list goes on.

  4.  The public have a subjective perception of how the countryside looks and how they would like it to look in a variety of idealised scenarios. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile the realities of a living, working countryside with the one that people would most like to visit. However, agri-environment schemes provide the opportunity to link together the realities of farming practices and the demands of the food industry with the needs of the public as consumers of food and as users of recreational landscapes. Even those who are physically remote from the countryside have a sense of expectation that the taxes should contribute towards creating beneficial countryside management policies and practices rather than negative ones that reduce biodiversity and landscape quality.

  5.  The value of the experience that visitors to the countryside have continues to be rewarding enough, despite the increasing pressures the countryside faces today. Visitor numbers have steadily increased over time. The Countryside Agency's "Foot and Mouth Disease: the State of the English Countryside" report (2001), stated that:

    "In 1998 over one-fifth of visitors to the countryside pursued activities such as hiking, rambling, field study and cycling that are now affected. These activities accounted for some 26 million tourist trips and spending of £2.7 billion."

  6.  It is evident from these figures that the countryside's "customers" have changed. Agri-environment schemes support this change by improving the quality of the experience of visiting the countryside and by making it a more diverse and vibrant place. The appreciation of these qualities by visitors needs to be capitalised upon by funding the policy mechanisms that foster them thus realising the public's expectations in a positive way.


  7.  Rights of way are a key element to walking in the countryside, and walking is Britain's most popular outdoor pastime. An ICM survey in 2000 showed that 77 per cent of the population walk for pleasure at least once a month. The public want and expect rights of way to meet legal requirements. Yet highway authorities—which receive funding from government for their statutory duty work on rights of way—are failing in these duties. The law requires rights of way to be open, free from obstruction, and signposted where they leave a metalled road. However, Audit Commission figures show that nearly all highway authorities are failing in these duties. The most recent performance indicators published by the Audit Commission cover the 1999-2000 year. These indicators show that only 75 per cent of rights of way in England were easy to use; and only 66 per cent in England were legally signposted. The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000 by the Countryside Agency shows that walkers can expect a serious problem around every 1.25 miles (2 km).

  8.  Rights of way are an integral part of the countryside. Their closure during FMD was fundamental to the failure of many businesses in rural areas during the FMD period because the public understood that the countryside was closed on account of rights of way being closed. This is a clear indication that citizens and taxpayers expect the countryside to offer an open and well maintained footpath network, and indeed rely upon it to deliver an "open countryside".


  9.  We consider it unacceptable that landowners who break the law by ploughing and cropping rights of way are currently eligible for payment for this within the terms of the IACS Arable Area Payment Scheme. We would like the government to amend the scheme to ensure that landowners are not being subsidised to break the law, and to make it a condition of any payment that all rights of way are free from obstruction. We also have concerns about the purchasing of public access under the provisions of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Our research shows that most of the access sites were previously open to the public to a greater or lesser degree and/or had access problems which were off-putting to visitors. We believe that this scheme has many benefits and provides excellent opportunities for better land management. However, it does not represent good value for money in terms of the benefits that it should provide the public through access provision, and consequently fails to support the economy in rural areas beyond its agricultural remit (such as by supporting tourism through providing a landscape that people can and want to visit). We strongly recommend that the millions of pounds spent on this scheme should be used far more strategically to deliver more far reaching local benefits, including supporting an open and well-maintained rights of way network and implementing Part 1 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which will bring many new opportunities for greater public access.

  10.  The Ramblers' Association welcomes the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) scheme of management agreements and payments to farmers for the conservation and maintenance of the countryside. However, we would like to see this scheme reformed so that grants were made conditional upon the landowner's observance of their statutory duties in respect of rights of way. We believe there is a case for combining ESAs, Countryside Stewardship and the Farm Woodland Premium scheme into a single framework.

  11.  We feel there should be recognition and reward to the dedication of some smaller farmers operating at minimal levels of profit to preserving small fields and field margin features which are highly valued by visitors to the countryside. The farming industry can be strengthened through maintaining a diverse structure of farm size and types. Industrial scale farming using intensive farming practices can lead to a reduction in landscape features that provide wildlife habitats. The RA shares the concerns of other countryside organisations regarding the loss of landscape features such as hedgerows and dry stone walls and the effects of overgrazing on hillsides We welcome the progress that has been made in addressing these problems but feel there is still much more to be achieved. Farmers need to be rewarded for good practice rather than productivity.

  12.  There are some welcome developments in the farming and food sectors. These positive aspects need to be better supported to achieve their full potential. For example the speciality and local foods sector. Production of these foods are based on quality not the cheapest price. It also provides a link between farmers and consumers and the landscape, thus providing an incentive to protect it.

  13.  Another example of this is organic farming. Following a ground shift in public awareness of organic produce the food retailers have realised there is a need to meet consumer demand. Retailers should recognise they have a major role to play in supporting conversion to organic systems with significant environmental benefits beyond non-use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. It has been an awareness of the impacts of intensive farming practices by pioneer organic farmers that resulted in organic farms having a more positive impact on the environment. Future demand for organic produce should be met by supporting organic practices that continue to foster practices that increase farm biodiversity. Furthermore, such practices need to be developed to provide further benefits such as increased access and landscape enhancement.


  14.  In the short term the RA hopes that the outcome of the current examinations of the food and farming industries will result in a major shift in farming and food production policy, along with a recognition of the contribution that walking and tourism now make to the rural economy. A change in current policy on food production methods inevitably requires a re-think on funding streams and how to increase funding and apply it in a more targeted way to ensure that agri-environment packages deliver a wide range of benefits to all the stakeholders of the rural economy.

  15.  The Ramblers' Association supports increased funding for the England Rural Development Programme through an increased share of EU funds for the UK at the mid-term review and further commitment to modulation between 2003 and 2006.

  16.  The problems that face the farming and food industry have been recognised for some time and derive mainly from a continuing narrow focus on over-production supported by subsidies mainly as a result of the Common Agricultural Policy. The RA hopes that in the medium to long term CAP reforms will further raise the ability of agri-environment schemes to deliver tangible multi-sector benefits throughout the countryside. We recognise that this will take time but believe it is essential in cushioning the economy in rural areas against any future crisis brought about by the current focus on support for unsustainable farming practice. We would like to see the Government push for increased degressivity in forthcoming rounds of CAP reform discussions.

  17.  The Foot and Mouth outbreak clearly demonstrated the role walking plays in the economy. Walking has an important contribution to make to a diverse range of businesses across all sectors of the rural economy. We recognise that those who live and work in rural areas are of primary importance but we also believe that those who visit the countryside share a significant appreciation of the qualities of the countryside, and that both communities and visitors alike wish to see these qualities protected. The RA believes that future funding requirements for farming subsidies and economic support mechanisms to rural areas need to consider all the facets of the economy in rural areas, strengthening it and preventing over-reliance on one particular sector. The creation of cohesive, cross compliant agri-environment schemes and an integrated approach to planning policies, (ensuring they do not simply allow a proliferation of development that damages the character of the countryside), will reinforce the qualities that people seek as inhabitants and visitors alike.

  18.  We recommend that Government agricultural policy ensures the creation of a highly diverse food and farming sector by increasing funding to and making the environmental focus of the current schemes broader so that landscape, biodiversity and amenity objectives are equal. This will enable these schemes to deliver to society the health benefits provided by outdoor recreation and aid the development of a greater understanding and appreciation of the countryside by making it more accessible and beautiful for all to enjoy.

The Ramblers' Association

11 December 2001

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