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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)



Paddy Tipping

  600. Can I pursue that point? In the large land mass there is a desire to go back to the wilderness. I just want to press both of you on this notion of attractive versus unattractive countryside. I think there is a case to go back to some wilderness. We have talked about that. Would the public accept this? Do they want a manicured countryside in, say, the hill and upland areas?
  (Mr Wynne) In a sense, that was part of what informed my answer. I think again, if we are asking the public to pay, those views would have to be taken into account. My suspicion is that there is part of the countryside which, through time, the public would value being in a wilder state. I think the initial assumption would be that we would try to have the farm landscape managed in a more sympathetic manner.
  (Mr Barrett) From our perspective, I think we are thinking this through. We have never assumed that a protected and enhanced environmental landscape meant one that is necessarily manicured from all over the place. Indeed, I think people entering the countryside for the purposes of recreation might enjoy a bit more wilderness out there.

  601. Could I press you on a point you made earlier when you were talking about the fragmented nature of agri-environment schemes for the countryside, such as the woodland premium? You say in your evidence that we can do better than that. Presumably, in terms of cost benefit, you also argue for a single scheme. Can you take us through the arguments there?
  (Mr Barrett) Yes, I can. We did some research on agri-environment schemes and their impact on public access and were pretty under-whelmed by what we found. I think one of our reports memorably says "scrap the Countryside Stewardship Scheme now". In a sense, we did not feel it was delivering value for money. These schemes are difficult to access if you are a farmer. They do not seem to be producing new access or only a little bit at any rate. They are often very poorly promoted and so that does not seem to be working terribly successfully. Again, thinking it through, what struck me was how unambitious these schemes were and how fragmented, dotted around the country and delivering, or arguably not delivering, very much in patches around the place. The more ambitious agri-environment scheme should be the ambition really. On top of that, I think the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the ESA scheme cost annually something like £90 million. We have just heard from the Countryside Agency that £69 million is all that is required to make all the rights of way open. I think that is an agri-environment scheme of ambition and scope in the sense that it would provide the public with what it wants; it is of economic significance. Again, that is a public good.

  602. I think you also argue that the administrative costs—and I think this is an RSPB point as well—of such schemes are relatively high because in a way they try to micro-manage the countryside. I think both of you made comments about the need for a broad and shallow scheme—it is amazing how these words come into the parlance across the countryside - and an elite scheme built on the top. Presumably there is a value-for-money consideration in that. I think the schemes themselves are going to be expensive to administer.
  (Mr Wynne) "Expensive" is again a relative concept. People seem to be horrified that the total administrative cost of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme is something like 25 per cent at the moment, including the advice to the farmers. I would like that to be lower, and I think there is some streamlining that could be achieved there. Actually, for a suite of schemes which is targeted at some of our most endangered wildlife, and we know that it is a big and difficult job to bring that back, it shows that there is a very important role for those kinds of schemes. The weakness with them is that they are not underpinned by the broad and shallow scheme, which ought to be able to come in at a very much lower level of administrative costs. I would be very careful about rubbishing the target schemes we have got. They can be improved. I can think of one very specific example: tier 1 of the ESA currently I think is very poor value for money in the main. Some of the higher tiers in ESAs are delivering a lot on the ground. Some of the targeted Countryside Stewardship schemes really are delivering for wildlife. They may not be delivering as much for access. These schemes take a long while to develop and put in place. I would be very cautious about throwing babies out with the bathwater.
  (Ms Swales) May I make a quick additional point on that in terms of how to deliver these schemes? In terms of the broad and shallow, obviously a lot of the detail has to be worked up, but we suggested, for example, that you could link it with the current IACS payment system. So there is already a lot of information recorded. Farmers already fill in all these forms. If you can layer agri-environment schemes on to that system and also use current GIS methods, which are being improved all the time, we think you can cut the administrative costs quite significantly and come up with a much simpler scheme to administer.

David Taylor

  603. I ramble frequently, both in the chamber and in rural Leicestershire! I am a member of the Ramblers' Association, Friends of the Earth, CPRE but not yet of the RSPB. I may join later. I am looking at the RA submission, paragraph 10, and Paddy referred to the assertion that there was a case for a stewardship framework. Just prior to that there is a comment that I heartily endorse: ". . . 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." I certainly hope there are no grants going into the purses of a cause célêbre like—and so on. Do you have much evidence indeed that grants are going, not in that particular case, to landowners who are not doing this?
  (Mr Barrett) Yes, on the issue of cross-compliance, there is public money going in. You want to see public goods and at the very least you expect there is an argument to be made for more rigid enforcement of cross-compliance. Nothing enrages a rambler more—and we have a good line on outrage—than to see his money in the form of taxes being given to farmers who plough, crop or otherwise block a legal right of way. That is not uncommon at all. The recent Countryside Agency conditions survey came to the conclusion that you would expect to run into a serious obstruction on rights of way once every one and a quarter miles. There are, in effect, therefore thousands of miles of public rights of way which are in some way seriously obstructed or basically unuseable as a result of modern farming methods. The notion of cross-compliance here enforcing those obligations is close to our heart.

  604. I do not dispute the principle but do you have evidence that some of the worst offenders are in receipt of grants of that type referred to in your submission?
  (Ms Fewster) We have not done any research to get hard figures on that but we have anecdotal reports from walkers that that is the case up and down the country.

  605. I am not sure I know how they know about government receipts. One final question to the RSPB: you talk about public benefits being delivered as a by-product of farming systems for centuries. Do either of the RSPB representatives have a vision of what the landscape might look like without such agricultural support? Would there be thousands of acres of prairies dotted with clusters of lovely industrial buildings where intensive production is taking place? I do not know. What is your view about that?
  (Mr Wynne) I think our concern is that if subsidies are removed and they are not replaced by public payments, then it is likely to be a polarised landscape between very intensive on the one hand and semi-dereliction and abandonment on other. I paint a simplified picture. We think that would be wrong and that is why we think there is very strong justification for public payments in order to deliver the environmental and other public elements of the countryside management right across the landscape.

  Chairman: I think I should declare that my wife is Chairman of the Footpaths Association, since you are all in this confessional mode. She is wandering around the countryside with a sledgehammer to hammer in signs for the footpaths. I have to say that it gives me very limited pleasure, but there we are. I get to carry the sledgehammer.

Mr Simpson

  606. I am totally against this confessional mode. Whatever confessions I have to make are between me and my whip! I have within my constituency an area of the Marshes which seems to be in a very good relationship between the community and the RSPB. It is a wonderful area. The thrust of the questions and your answers has very much been about the balance between how do you protect and develop the environment for the public and at the same time preserve farming, although we are not quite certain what we mean by "farming". My questions are specifically aimed at the RSPB but I would be very happy if representatives of the ramblers gave us their views. In the RSPB submission to this Committee, you proposed that UK agricultural authorities should define and enforce a minimum environmental standard for agriculture. If you define the minimum environmental standards for agriculture, what would they actually be?
  (Ms Swales) We would like to see a minimum environmental standard which starts out with the current codes of good agricultural practice, which relate to soil, air and water and taking elements of those, but also building in some aspects which relate to biodiveristy issues, because those codes really do not cover biodiveristy issues as they currently stand. We think an environmental standard needs to be realistic; it has to be enforceable and monitorable. You have to have a balance between what costs you impose on a farm business and what protection of the environment you are going to deliver. There has been quite a lot of work done in looking at what the environment standards might be. There are various ways of delivering that and in terms we would like to see, for example, more farmers having to complete a farm audit which would look at the resources on the farm and say, "Yes, they are complying with legislation which relates to handling slurry and storage", those sorts of things, for example, and use and handling of pesticides. Another way of delivering that might be to say, "Are you are a member of a recognised assurance scheme, like the Little Red Tractor?" If we can get the environmental standards right in that assurance scheme, that would be another way of saying, "OK, you are a member of that so, yes, you have met these minimum environmental standards".

  607. You talked about encouraging good practice. It seems to me that we would be slipping inevitably towards more legislation, either UK legislation or indeed EU legislation. In the standard which you have outlined, how would you actually police these? If they are not legal, if they are merely good standards, would you imagine that being policed by DEFRA, or by the Environment Agency. In practical terms, how would it be policed?
  (Mr Wynne) That is a very good question. Certainly in the interim, as we introduce these, we would like to see market mechanisms used in this as much as possible as well. I would certainly like to see assurance schemes explored to the full extent to see whether we can get the right standards in the assurance schemes, and then entry into the assurance scheme would be a way of this being checked so that the burden did not entirely fall on the regulatory system. I think that needs to be explored. Whether or not that will work, I do not know. Other than that, I think the Environment Agency and the other statutory organisations like English Nature would have to take the brunt. There has been a lot of debate recently about trying to do that in a collaborative fashion with individual farmers and taking a risk assessment approach rather than just the use of a very blunt instrument. I think that is very interesting as well. If we want land managers to buy in, which is what we are asking them to do, then trying to enforce the regulation in a collaborative fashion is quite important.

  608. Do you think the regulations and the good practice we have at the moment are rational?
  (Mr Wynne) I think they are not irrational. I think they are incomplete and they are almost certainly too heavy-handed in some areas and too light in others, but that is not to say they are irrational.

  609. I find it interesting when you talk to people on the ground, farmers, NGOs of one kind or another, that the main problems as they see them are that often there are competing institutions and organisations coming out with contradictory advice or applying one law for which there are two or three different interpretations. For example, even the farmers who are at the best practice end of the market are sometimes driven into the ground by this. The objective must surely be to encourage what is being practised by the best farmers, by those members of the farming community who are perhaps for one reason or another reluctant to carry out best practice.
  (Mr Wynne) I could not agree with you more. Effectively, that was the substance of my previous answer. I do not think this is a uniform application of rules. It has to be an interpretation of the person who has to deliver on the ground.

  610. Who should take the lead?
  (Mr Wynne) If I may finish, I am not sure of the extent to which there is contradictory advice out there. I think what is happening is that the individual farmer and land manager is visited by different agencies on different days of the week asking him to do different things, some of which are complementary and some of which do not initially appear to be complementary. I think streamlining the system, bringing it together, is very important indeed.

  611. Who should take the lead on this? Is this something where there should be a lead ministry and should DEFRA basically be the lead organisation?
  (Mr Wynne) I would have thought the logic of setting up DEFRA was in order that it could fulfil this role. It has the key agencies under its wing and it has the responsibility for delivery of key European Directives as part of its remit, so I think it has to be DEFRA that takes the lead on this.
  (Mr Barrett) Can I backtrack a fraction on that. I would not like the Committee to go away thinking that we were only here talking about the environmental standards. Those are really important but I think the access element to that is not an add-on, it should be a compulsory part of what you are looking at here in the broad and shallow schemes in as much as the people who I feel I am here representing do not just want minimum environmental standards, they do not just want a countryside which is enhanced, they also want to be able to get into it and access is quite easily audited in that effect. The Rights of Way Network has been audited three times by the Countryside Agency over the last 18 years or so, so that element of environmental and access standards can be quite specifically and accurately monitored.

  612. My final question to you is given the outline of minimum environmental standards for agriculture, have you worked out what the cost is likely to be and who should bear the brunt of those costs? Certainly if we had here the Chief Secretary to the Treasury he would be looking rather po-faced at this point and saying that there is a cost factor involved in all of this and he would not wish that that cost factor fell heavily in the area of public expenditure.
  (Mr Wynne) I will start on that one. No, nobody has worked out the costs. Rightly or wrongly, we have entered into legislative commitments without knowing what the costs of implementation are. Part of the logic of the Curry Report recommendation on the broad and shallow scheme is that in order that all of those costs do not fall on the farmer, entry into that scheme would assist them with compliance with the legislation which is in the pipeline now and is going to fall on them. Secondly, that is an even stronger reason for starting the movement now from payment through production subsidies to payment through the environmental scheme, the broad and shallow scheme, in order to help farmers. That is the argument for introducing modulation at the minimum of ten per cent as soon as possible. If I could just build on that to make the point that the failures of current policy seem to be very well rehearsed, the impediments to reform of current policy seem to be very well rehearsed, what seems to be less well rehearsed is how do we make progress forward now to assist the farmer and the environment and the consumer. I would really make a plea that the Curry Report recommendation for movement to ten per cent modulation as soon as possible does seem to be, if not the only show in the town, the main one to start making progress now. I think if we balk at that we are all going to be sitting in this room in five years' time rehearsing exactly the same issues.

  Mr Simpson: I am sure the Chancellor will listen very carefully to your plea.

Mr Breed

  613. We have talked essentially about public money paying for public goods and I would like to bring that down more to the specifics. If the tourism industry wants an attractive landscape, should it not be for the tourism industry as a whole to contribute to that? If that is the case, how might that be done? Secondly, in terms of footpaths, rights of way, we are all familiar in our own areas with the costs of doing it and the difficulties, some of the things that you explained in terms of barriers and so on, which conflict with farming practices. If the ramblers do want to use these should they not make some contribution and should not those who ramble make some contribution?
  (Mr Barrett) We already do is the answer to that via our taxes.

  614. Are we coming down more to the specifics? We have talked about the public goods and the public paying but I am coming down more to the specifics of the tourism industry paying for farmers to have the attractive landscape and for ramblers and such who want to use footpaths paying towards specifically the maintenance of footpaths.
  (Mr Barrett) The maintenance of footpaths is a statutory obligation, a legal requirement. We are ramblers, walkers, there are millions of us, it is the nation's favourite pastime. They already pay in the form of their taxes for—

  615. Do you think you get value for money?
  (Mr Barrett) No, absolutely not, I do not think we get value for money. As I said, for probably every one and a quarter miles there are thousands of miles in effect unusable, we do not get very good value for money at all. It is a frustration from our perspective. Not an awful lot of extra money in the great scheme of things is needed in order to put it right. Your broader question, should the tourism industry pay for—

  616. The landscape which is going to attract their business essentially. If you are in the tourism industry, in my area in the South West people do come down for the attractive landscape and, therefore, in a way they are providing the backcloth for the potential business that they are going to achieve. Should tourism not in some way pay for farmers who are creating the landscape which enables them to have a business?
  (Mr Wynne) If I could just add to that. It seems to me that one way could be to tax the tourist industry specifically but surely the larger contribution, even in those parts of the world where there is such a tax, of the tourist industry is through the local economy and the money it generates into the local economy is fed back into the economy. Surely the market to some extent does do this.


  617. We must move on. The idea of having swipe machines on the turnstiles is fascinating.
  (Mr Wynne) Can I just add that it does also pay through people's membership of organisations like the RSPB. We are now managing 300,000 acres of amenity land for the public paid for almost entirely from voluntary contributions from the million members.

Mr Borrow

  618. I find it very difficult to come to terms with the idea that because we are talking about the countryside and we want to make a nice tourist industry in the countryside Her Majesty's Government should pay direct, but if I go to Scarborough, or I go to Blackpool, or I go to Brighton, the local authority and the tourist industry in those areas pick up the tab for ensuring that those places are nice places to visit rather than Central Government. I just wonder why the financing mechanism for the amenity value of the countryside should come from Central Government rather than either directly from the industries that benefit or from the local communities through local taxation? Why is it a Central Government function because it is in rural areas whereas in urban areas making it very nice is a local problem.
  (Mr Wynne) We believe that the agricultural industry is inherently different from other sectors of the economy in that it is responsible for managing 80 per cent of the landscape and has a huge impact on the quality of soil, air and water to a much greater extent than other industries do. There are two ways that the public can ensure that the quality of that management of such a huge fundamental resource to the nation is achieved. One is through regulation, so we could regulate farmers until they would go out of existence. Two is we can help pay for some of those public benefits. We would advocate a combination of those two has to be the logical way forward. Sorry, there is a third which is trying to get the market to deliver as much as possible as well.

Mr Todd

  619. Would it not be more efficient simply to pay landowners for maintaining footpaths to an acceptable standard on their property, the stiles and so on, rather than applying it through, as you have said, the taxation system and the obligations on small local authorities with many other tasks to bother them? I should say that I do have a footpath on my property so I ought to declare that interest.
  (Mr Barrett) Not blocked, I trust.

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