The Ministry of Agriculture asked economists from Newcastle University to find whether Britain's 33 Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) represent good value for money. Within these areas farmers receive extra payments to use the land in ways which retain and enhance well-loved features and wildlife.
This year British taxpayers will fund the ESA scheme to the tune of pounds 27m, rising to more than pounds 60m later in the decade as the number of ESAs grows to 43. They will cover 15 per cent of Britain's land area. After much public opinion-polling and calculation the researchers concluded that people are willing to spend substantially more than that each year.
Their report is an important contribution to the great debate over what modern farmers are for. As the European Union struggles to stop subsidising farmers to over-produce food (destroying the countryside and overcharging consumers in the process), two very different rural futures emerge.
In one, the free market reigns. Farmers have to intensify and industrialise their agriculture to compete with their foreign rivals. The trend is to give up accelerates, leaving a depopulated countryside with abandoned fields being invaded by scrub.
The alternative is for farmers to receive much of their income not from selling crops and livestock but for keeping the countryside in the kind of shape the voters want it to be in. For most people that means traditional - a chequerboard of small fields, copses and hedgerows, with healthy populations of wildflowers, butterflies and birds.
This kind of large-scale rural gardening is already starting to happen. The ESA payments are foremost among a plethora of government schemes which pay farmers to keep open footpaths, plant trees and conserve habitats. Total payments remain small compared to the billions of pounds still being poured into crop and livestock subsidies, but it is starting to make a difference and some farmers have become heavily dependent on these grants.
The Newcastle researchers focused on two ESAs - the Somerset Levels and Moors and the South Downs in Hampshire and Sussex. They asked a sample of residents and visitors in both areas what they would be willing to pay towards the ESA scheme, as opposed to having no scheme at all. They then asked a cross-section of people from all over England - more than 3,000 - what they would be willing to pay in taxes to support the nationwide ESA scheme.
Of course, it all depends on how you put the questions. The team lead by Dr Ken Willis spent months trying to ensure they obtained credible, worthwhile answers. Before putting the questions, they gave respondents brochures which explained what difference being in an ESA should make to a landscape. Colour photgraphs showed what kind of features the extra payments to farmers should conserve, and what would disappear if there was no ESA and present trends towards more intensive farming continued.
But inevitably these brochures looked like advertisements for ESAs. The payments scheme is, after all, intended to achieve something valued by the public. The researchers leaned heavily on US experience to try to avoid these pitfalls - the Americans lead the field of environmental cost-benefit analysis. When they posed their questions they told people how much they were already spending in taxation on other things like defence and education.
There is some good evidence that all these precautions paid off. For instance, 35 per cent of the general public across the country said they were not willing to pay any tax for ESAs. That blunt refusal to pay by more than one-third of those questioned has a certain ring of truth about it; environment-friendliness is not universal when it comes down to money.
Furthermore, between 13 and 26 per cent of visitors and residents interviewed in situ in the Somerset Levels and the South Downs were unwilling to pay anything. A few people actually preferred the more intensively farmed landscapes. But most took the opposite view and were willing to pay. The median bid of the general public (the most meaningful kind of average for this type of survey) was about pounds 15 per year towards ESAs. At present the real taxation bill for funding them works out at pounds 1 per household.
Visitors and residents to the Levels and the Downs were willing to pay similar amounts to look after their own particular ESAs. The Downs were valued slightly higher than the Levels; they are a more appreciable landscape. The more people earned, the more they were willing to pay, which gave the researchers reassurance about the credibility of their findings.
'In the Levels, people were willing to pay for the familiar pollarded willows, the network of ditches, the waterfowl, the flooded meadows and the sight of cows grazing the fields,' says Dr Willis. 'In the Downs they wanted copses of broadleaved trees, drystone walls and hedgerows, sheep, butterflies and wildflowers. They disliked the kind of prarie landscape that is appearing there.'
Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture, says the survey shows taxpayers are getting good value for money from ESAs. But environmental payments to farmers are thought to have come under strong pressure from the Treasury in the run up to this month's Budget. Will the Chancellor share her view?
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