Editor’s view: Countryside’s future in hands of doers, not talkers

This week, I came as close as I ever have to attending a House of Lords away day.

It wasn’t an official one, you understand, but a very smart new conference named Countryside Future, held at grand Hatfield House in Hertfordshire – home of the seventh Marquess of Salisbury and packed with aristocracy.

As well as those with ermine robes in their wardrobe, those assembled included academics, endless representatives of single-interest groups and, fortunately, a few farmers to discuss how to develop a shared vision for a modern countryside.

See also: Editor’s view: Voluntary price cap is the silliest food policy yet

About the author

Andrew Meredith
Farmers Weekly editor
Andrew has been Farmers Weekly editor since January 2021 after doing stints on the business and arable desks. Before joining the team, he worked on his family’s upland beef and sheep farm in mid Wales and studied agriculture at Aberystwyth University. In his free time he can normally be found continuing his research into which shop sells London’s finest Scotch egg.
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It was mostly as you’d expect. Various laudable schemes for making the countryside a better place for its inhabitants, whether they be people, livestock or wildlife.

What many of the proponents lack is an ability to speak the language of those who actually do most of the work in the countryside and will be the ones who bring their grand dreams to life. And by that I don’t mean dumbing down, just plain English as default.

There were wide-ranging references to writers such as Dickens, Wordsworth, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Clarkson, and many a mention of deeply researched reviews now gathering dust in Defra’s basement (Dasgupta, Glover, Dimbleby). However, there was less talk of tangible action.

Most disappointing – given the number of politicians in the room – was the fact that the pleas for change were not punctuated with a rigorous analysis of how barriers to this transformation can be overcome.

By that I mean the acquisition of sufficient power to get things done.

How, for example, do we exert adequate pressure on political parties to compel them to pack their manifestos with the pledges we want?

Yet I did not leave downhearted. And that wasn’t because I joined those attacking Lord Salisbury’s wine reception with gusto (out of politeness, you understand).

It was because of the remarks of another member of the upper chamber.

One who has a proper job – Defra minister Lord Benyon.

In a discussion on how the countryside can better help deliver improved health outcomes, he noted that the power to deliver change is already within the hands of landowners, who can, as he has, throw open their gates to members of the public now if they wish.

His comment that for good to happen you shouldn’t always wait for the government to act is very honest, given he is a member of the government.

Yes, there are certain barriers that only the government can shove out of the way and yes, sometimes it actively prevents good from happening.

But alongside those intending to join the growing Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme (with new details expected next week), there are many farmer groups out there already being rewarded for improving space for nature or improving water quality with little help from a public body.

These include Peakland Environmental Farmers, backed by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the Landscape Enterprise Networks springing up in the east of England and elsewhere.

The crucial thing will be for them not to hide their light under a bushel. We cannot have our industry achieving success in private and errors in public.

So in the short term there is plenty that can be started and shouted about now.

And in the long term, if you’re in yet another meeting with organisations that simply make passive requests of those in power, put your hand up and ask them if they understand the politics of what it would take to make that a reality, and whether they are capable of it.

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