LETTER : Laying the land to waste

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The Independent Online
From The Earl of Lytton

Sir: While Nick Brown's concern for hill farmers (Letters, 26 August) is welcome, I fear he will find matters have moved on since the idea of paying farmers for environmental outputs was promoted a decade or more ago.

The unpalatable truth is that farmers are being asked for a great deal more at a time when their returns in most sectors, and certainly on the hills, are declining very sharply. Unfortunately, nobody really wants to pay for environmental goods; they are regarded in many circles as birthrights of the nation, regardless of the difficulty or cost of provision. There is no "market" or, if there is, it is based on a command economy. Empirical evidence of environmental grants and payments gives little cause for enthusiasm; in most cases they have been cut very significantly in recent years. What has grown exponentially is the administration; the plethora of "schemes", the cross-compliance, the form-filling, the risks of falling foul of some undisclosed rule or official zealotry. Such overheads create a market scarcely worth a second glance.

Everyone wants the cost of the EU and, especially, the Common Agricultural Policy to be reduced sharply. It is fanciful to suppose that there is some other cash to be unearthed but, if there is, most of it will doubtless be spent on bureaucracy. There is, however, one thing that can be done by local authority planners and that is to put in place the means whereby farms can genuinely diversify, and business activity in the countryside can have a proper relationship with rural land management.

So far they have singularly failed in this. Worse, many local authorities believe it is none of their business to make rural socio-economics a core theme of their statutory plans, but deploy a large stock of negative and prescriptive policies aimed at near-absolute control of all rural land use without having to pay for it and greatly adding to farmers' costs. This is despite government guidance and ministerial pronouncements. The ethic is inherently against a working countryside and in favour of a dependency culture.

Not surprisingly, there are no long-term targets but a lot of ill-conceived methodologies. The disincentive to rural entrepreneurialism is clear; soon there may be all too few competent farmers or well-motivated land managers and, if we are not careful, the result in parts of our countryside will be neglect and dereliction.

Yours faithfully,

Lytton

House of Lords

London, SW1

28 August

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