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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 574 - 579)




  574. Good morning. From the Ramblers' Association, we have Mr Barrett, who is Chief Executive, and Jacquetta Fewster, who is Head of Footpaths Campaigns. From the RSPB, we have Mr Wynne, who is the Chief Executive, and Vicki Swales, who is the Head of Agriculture Policy. Paddy Tipping has notified the Committee that he is a Vice President of the Ramblers' Association. He wants that declaration of interest on the record. We are looking basically at how agriculture will earn a living in a world which is much less secure, both in terms of more exposure to the marketplace and on the concomitant removal of some of the support with which it has become traditionally associated. I would be grateful if, in answering the questions, you could, as far as possible, direct your answers to that constructive view of what the role of agriculture is. Could I start by asking you this. A lot of the environmental schemes we have seen up to now are based on income foregone, so are not in a sense intended to be earners as such with compensatory schemes. Sometimes one gets the impression that some people imagine that the whole of farming can put food production as a sort of optional extra, that an entire livelihood is going to be earned off the exploitation concept, whether environmental assets or recreational assets. Would you like to tell us: do you think it possible that environment and recreation can become a substantive form of income for farmers, and how that would happen? That is a helpful way into the subject. Where are its limits?

  (Mr Wynne) That is an excellent question. Can the environment pay totally for the farming economy? No. Certainly the perception of the RSPB would be that reward for good management of the environment is a legitimate source of income for all farmers farming anywhere throughout the UK. The extent of that public support for managing the environment will almost certainly vary from one part of the UK to another. Some parts are intrinsically more attractive; they are more attractive in terms of tourism for people visiting, they are more valuable for biodiveristy, they have a higher energy value. It seems to us that there is quite a close correlation between those parts of the country and in fact those parts of the country which tend to be less productive in terms of soil type and climate affecting agriculture. In those parts of the county, it seems to us entirely plausible that a substantial part of their income could be earned from managing the environment and providing amenity and in other parts it will be subsidiary to food or fibre production as the main economic activity. There seems absolutely no reason why an Essex farmer, providing the countryside is close to London and utilised by hundreds of thousands of people and having requirements on the management of the environment and the environmental needs attached to it, should not also receive some part of his income from doing those tasks.
  (Mr Barrett) I add that I think one of the things that we as a nation have learnt from the foot and mouth epidemic is that an open, welcoming, attractive and well-looked after countryside is really a key element to a thriving rural economy in the sense that people come into the countryside because it looks nice, is well managed and the environment is nurtured, as it were. That provides scope for a diverse and service-oriented rural economy. Obviously a countryside that is not devoted to the over-production of food but one which is also paid to manage access, manage landscape and manage wildlife would be a more viable economic countryside.

  575. We had Don Curry in front of us a little while ago. His recommendation is for a sort of universally available bottom-of-the-range scheme. He calls the scheme broad and shallow. Mr Wynne, I was wondering whether or not when he said that of course there are different parts of the country which lend themselves more easily to access and are more obviously cashable in a sense for farmers, if you envisage some sort of flat, common, universal scheme or would you prefer trying to get, as it were, the best bang for the buck through actually trying to focus the schemes on those parts of the country where the ability to identify cost and reward was more evident and in that sense inviting farmers to bid in for schemes perhaps to be able to set some part of price list? I want to explore that line of argument with you.
  (Mr Wynne) The answer is very straightforward: we think you need both. If I could just refer to the end of your question, I think you can as readily sort out cost and reward in the intensively farmed parts of the country as in some of the less intensive. I agree with the underlying thrust of the question that if there were a broad and shallow scheme available for all farmers across the entire country, then there would need to be additional, higher levels of payment for higher levels of environmental management and higher levels of amenity provision, if I can put it that way. I think I would agree that a competitive element in how and where those are delivered would be a good thing to ensure efficiency.
  (Mr Barrett) The question is about agri-environment schemes.

  576. That is, in your recreational programme.
  (Mr Barrett) With the recreational slant on it, we have thought about this. We can see the sense of the broad and shallow approach. We can also see the sense of more elite tiers, maybe in upland areas, for example, where more money is available for enhanced schemes. We can also see the case for the better promotion of environmental schemes, special advisers for farmers, and a huge simplification in the nature of the schemes that are on offer. Our own experience is that they are fragmented at best and currently do not offer tremendous value for money, certainly from a public amenity point of view.

  577. The final question from me is: clearly the CAP is moving in a direction in which there is going to be more national discretion in the detailed application of certain general rules and that appears to be the sort of thrust of the whole of your development programme about modulation really taking us down in that direction. How wide an echo do the sorts of ideas you are putting forward find on the Continent? Who are your interlocutors, your sister organisations, on the Continent? In France do people use the countryside for anything other than the slaughter of large quantities of migratory birds? To what extent are we applying a particular cultural mind set in the UK, as it were, which may not be transposable and how will those mind sets change and the attitudes change across the rest of the continent?
  (Ms Swales) I think we need to look back to the agri-environment regulation from where the environment schemes came. This is something which is applied across Europe within European rules, but you are quite right of course that here is a great degree of subsidiarity in terms of how individual Member States decide what schemes they are going to have. I think the approaches that have been taken in the UK echo clearly the approaches taken in other European countries, and we know that from our work with our Bird Life International partners. In fact a few years ago we did a major review of agri-environment schemes across Europe. It is true there is a very varied approach but it is clear that many countries have schemes which pay for what might be considered broad and shallow measures. Finland particularly went down that route. But there is also a recognition that there need to be more specific schemes targeted to biodiveristy, to special areas, to landscape, et cetera. We have quite a good system with common rules established at a European level but with a considerable degree of flexibility to devise programmes which are appropriate to different Member States and the different habitats and features found in those countries.
  (Mr Wynne) Might I add one point? I absolutely agree with that. If I can put it like this, I think there is a real danger of almost UK arrogance in terms of perceiving that the rest of Europe and the European public is not interested in the quality of its environment. There is ample evidence right across Europe, certainly including the Latin countries, where we are obviously rapidly rubbishing their environmental performance. Some of the land management initiatives that have been taken by the Spanish Government at the moment are of the highest order. It is the case that certainly in southern European countries and in France the power of the agricultural lobby that is currently in receipt of public payments is even stronger than it is in this country, and therefore the resistance to change is there, but we would observe from working closely, as I say, with colleagues throughout Europe, and certainly in Germany, that that is beginning to break down quite rapidly.

Mr Drew

  578. Do you worry at all about the new emphasis on environmental payments inasmuch as you have been committed to this for decades and are now being seriously listened to and that seems to be the answer? Is there not a problem that more does not necessarily mean better?
  (Mr Wynne) Forgive me, but I did not understand.

  579. What I am saying is that we are trying to find ways of supporting British agriculture. Environmental payments in some of the ways in which we can gear in as an alternative to production subsidies but the people to whom we will be paying this money have not necessary come naturally to environmental conservation management. As we move headlong in that direction, you could end up with a diluted series of environmental measures, which presumably is not what you want to see?
  (Mr Wynne) That is a very interesting question. There seem to be two parts to it. One: is there a culture from existing farmers and land managements to deliver on the environment to the extent that we would like? I would have to say that is very mixed. Again, I think it would be a very arrogant environmentalist, however, who would say that there are not hundreds of thousands of farmers out there who would like to do more for the environment but do not see a ready and easy way of doing so. I think if you change the system of public rewards, as I say, we would know thousands of farmers who would respond very positively indeed. Do I see a problem of dilution of delivery? No, I do not think I see that. At the moment I see under-delivery for the environment to such an extent that I think there is a very serious need for more public assistance. Part of that is financial and part of it is advice and help to deliver for the environment.
  (Ms Swales) May I add that the important issue we need to think about in terms of agri-environment schemes and environmental payments is doing proper monitoring and evaluation of those schemes. We have a system currently in IACS where direct payments are given to farmers with relatively little scrutiny—1 per cent, 5 per cent, depending on how that money is paid. Clearly we need to put checks and balances in place with agri-environment payments; we need to have proper monitoring programmes in place. When that is carried through, it does demonstrate that there is an appetite for farmers for these schemes and that we can actually deliver something very positive for the environment from them.
  (Mr Barrett) I was going to add purely anecdotally that through our membership and coming into contact with the farmers who have shown an interest in these schemes, they are put off by the complexity and paperwork that is involved. There is an argument, as I said before, for a simplification of the schemes and promotion of advice, as Graham has just mentioned.

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