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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 750-759)




  750. Good morning. You know what you are here for. Let's just make it plain for the record: Ellie Robinson, Policy Officer, National Trust.

  (Ellie Robinson) Yes.

  751. Mr Macklin, Agriculture Advisor. You are National Trust as well.
  (Mr Macklin) That is right, yes.

  752. Then we move on to Tony Burton, Director of Sustain.
  (Mr Burton) That is not right.

  753. I thought it was not right.
  (Mr Burton) I am the Director of Policy and Strategy at National Trust.

  754. I thought there had been a mistake. There is a misleading semi-colon. Then we have Vicki Hird, Policy Director for Sustain.
  (Vicki Hird) That is right.

  755. Which is not to do with the cereal, I take it.
  (Vicki Hird) No, absolutely not. They got the name first, but . . .

  756. We are looking at the future of farming. When we listen to some of the organisations, particularly environmental organisations, one gets the impression that they have a sort of vision of the countryside which does not exactly date back to a golden age but is a fairly fixed sort of vision. It is all about preserving things and seems to be less about changing things, in a way. Could you comment on what sort of countryside you are in the business of looking after? What sort of countryside do you think we ought to have?
  (Mr Burton) I do not think we would perhaps hear the same preservationist approach from the other environmental NGOs, but the countryside is a place of tremendous change. There is no part of the countryside which is not subject to change and has not been subject to change for many years. The issue for us is about managing that process of change and ensuring that there is a degree of continuity with the past which recognises and values the land and its assets for the future, to ensure that future generations can benefit from those assets and have the same choices or better choices in the future than we have got at the moment. But there is no sense in our agenda of pickling, of preserving, of stopping change in rural areas.
  (Vicki Hird) I think our membership would go the same way in suggesting that it is managing the change which is important. We are certainly interested in the diversity of farming systems, of landscape, and that is something we would want not necessarily to preserve or pickle but actually to address the diversity, and to try and maintain it so that we can ensure that we have the kind of environmental landscape and rural community diversity that we have now.

  757. Do you accept that in this process of change we are going to have progressively fewer farms and progressively fewer farmers and progressively more people doing other things in the countryside?
  (Vicki Hird) Sustain for many years has advocated measures to ensure that we maintain small and medium-sized farms and not to lose them, so, in terms of losing more than we have already lost and the farm workers associated with that, I think we would be keen not to lose any more . We recognise that, as you say, change is inevitable but we want to see measures and leadership from the Government to be sure that that scenario does not happen.
  (Mr Burton) We would see a diversity of farms being crucial in the future. There is a very strong trend towards fewer farmers, but we would see more farmers doing other things and farming being essentially a much more multi-purpose business than simply agricultural production.

  758. I want to talk about liberalisation. I think most people accept that the trend, so far as support is concerned, is likely to be one in which the supports as we know them now are likely to become diluted. The Curry Commission talked a great deal about farms being competitive and the need to be competitive and the present system of taking farmers away from the market place and the market signals all having become sort of blurred. At the same time there is great talk about being stewards of the land and you have been talking about preserving small and medium-sized farms. What sort of mechanisms are going to enable us to reconcile the creation, if you like, of a certain social stability with competitiveness on an increasingly international basis?
  (Vicki Hird) There is clearly a need to ensure that we are not going against the general trends in WTO negotiations but we think that the discussions being made now on a "broad and shallow" scheme or, as the German Government has proposed, the sort of "premium area" based schemes are certainly what we should be discussing now. We should be looking at the impact of those changes on small and medium-sized farms—and large farms, indeed. I am not on a platform of big is bad and small is beautiful. It is certainly not that. We are looking at, as I said before, the diversity. What we are concerned about is that if you lose that diversity and you lose the small and medium-sized farms, you are losing a lot more than a few business. So it is on that platform that we are concerned. The measures by which we ensure that does not happen will need to be very well thought through, and impact assessments will need to be carried out on any major structural changes to the support system, so that if we are introducing, for instance, a "broad and shallow" scheme as Curry recommended, it has to be at the same time as reducing any other support measures. It has to be in tandem, so that we do not see a haemorrhaging of the farming community.

  759. I am sorry, can you just say that bit again: it has to be at the same time as doing what?
  (Vicki Hird) We have to have a phase of transition, so that farmers can actually be assisted in moving into a new style of support, that is based on environmental and welfare and, possibly, social support, at the same time as any reduction in, for instance, direct payments that have no such standards attached to them. So it needs to be in tandem. We do not want to see a dramatic decrease in support payments. It is, as in our submission, the Cork model we are looking for—that kind of process.


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