The future of the countryside
- Replacing the CAP
- Farm tenancies
- The problem of dilapidations
- Subsidies and grants
- Town v country
- The reality of farming
- When things go seriously wrong
- What is to be done?
- Solving the problem of land value
The top priority of any government is security of food, water and energy supply. These are followed by infrastructure, health, education, housing, security, environment and others.
If security of food supply is top of the list one would expect governments give top priority to policies for agriculture and the countryside.
No government, of any colour, has ever done this.
After the Brexit vote it seemed that some attention was being paid by Michael Gove with the development of the Environment and Land Management Scheme (ELMS). With the arrival of Liz Truss as PM this seems to have been quietly dropped - or at least pushed to one side, with a banker now in charge of DEFRA.
The lack of priority given to food production, agriculture and the countryside probably explains why civil servants at DEFRA keep a stack of flash cards ready for any new minister: "this is a cow / sheep / pig / chicken / duck /... and this is a field of grass / wheat / barley / oats / turnips / sugar beet / carrots /... and this is a tractor / combine / side rake / mower / baler / wrapper / plough / seed drill /..."
"Let the market decide" has been, and continues to be, a disaster for our countryside and our wider environment. Farmers do what is asked of them - the job of government is to ask them to do what we, as a society, need.
"Efficiency" isn't everything!
Some politicians think they are running "UK PLC" with "efficiency" and "maximising return on investment" as their primary motives. In reality most politicians couldn't organise a drinking session in a brewery - though they might manage the odd wine and cheese party.
Politicians have social responsibilities and they spend our money so they should do so wisely and responsibly without bad management, corruption and lining the pockets of their friends. During Covid we saw far too much of that and we are all aware of how much overt bribery goes on in our current system by way of "donations".
The countryside is far more than a source of "efficiently" grown food.
The countryside is an essential part of what we are: the patterns of the English countryside with its lanes, fields, hedgerows, cows, sheep, crops and wildlife, make us English - as does the Welsh countryside for the Welsh and the Scottish countryside for the Scots.
We could remove all the hedges, boundaries and animals and lay it all down to soya to manufacture fake meat - surely that would be "efficient"?
Farmers do what we ask them to do - as long as they can make a living. If we ask them to produce more food they will rip out hedges for the "efficient" use of large combine harvesters. They will build new stone walls, lay new hedgerows and create headlands for wildlife if we ask them to. They simply want to be clear about what is expected of them - and they want to make a decent living.
Replacing the CAP
Leaving the EU meant an alternative had to be found to the wasteful Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which paid farmers (large or small) an amount per acre - no matter if they needed the money and no matter what they did with it.
At the moment (January 2022) the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which replaces the previous CAP subsidy, provides £1.6 billion per year to English farmers but is being reduced each year until ending in 2027.
Payment by land area (CAP and BPS) is a subsidy for large, wealthy landholders.
The Queen and Prince Charles continue to receive BPS payments as does James Dyson (second largest private landholder in England and supporter of Brexit), the Duke of Westminster (whose landholdings go back to The Great Theft of 1066), and Paul Dacre (ex-editor of the Daily Mail, major landholder and supporter of Brexit). Until his death in 2021, the billionaire racehorse owner and friend of the Queen, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah al Saud of Saudi Arabia, also received the payment.
In theory BPS should go to the person farming the land but in many cases the landholder claims the BPS (by pretending to be a farmer) and also claims rent from the tenant farmer who actually does the work.
The ending of BPS will destroy many small tenant farms.
From an eye-pleasing, peaceful field of cattle:
to yet more "efficient" green desert - in under 6 years.
Types of farm tenancies
The rights of farm tenants have been whittled away as landholders have used their MPs to pass laws in their own interest. English law has always been written in favour of those who own land - that's why things like "trusts" were invented.
Full Agricultural Tenancies provided security of tenure and a "right of succession" - the tenant can pass on the tenancy to a child - providing that child was also making a living from the farm.
The Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 removed the right of succession.
The Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995 removed security of tenure and introduced "business tenancies" which allow landlord and tenant to define the contract between them for any length of time. There is no security of tenure and the agreement is non-transferable. The Act transferred all power and control to the landlord - the tenant can do almost nothing without the written consent of the landlord - and this has a significant impact on the government's latest proposals for environmental payments.
Landlords went even further and land can now be let "under licence". This allows the landlord to rent out any part of the land (a single field), for any period of time (often as short as one year), for any specified purpose (though it must be agricultural), to anyone willing to pay the highest rent. This is sometimes referred to as the landholder "taking the land in hand" - either to manage him/herself or, more likely, to rent to the highest bidder. There is no incentive to maintain and improve land, hedges and ditches, or to provide headlands for wildlife, if you have it for only a year!
These examples are fictitious but represent the reality of rural tenancies..
Landholder X has the freehold on 2,000 acres of land in the English Midlands. Neither he nor his family are farmers but his family has been living off rent for several hundred years.
Farmer A is a tenant on a 150 acre farm. He used to be a dairy farmer but falling milk prices and a lifetime of early mornings and late nights, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, persuaded him to give up his milk quota and go over to beef cattle.
Farmer A has a full agricultural tenancy so he has security of tenure. He pays the landholder £75 an acre rent (£11,250 per year) and he receives £94 per acre (£14,169 per year) from the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS). BPS pays the rent.
Farmer B is a tenant of the same landholder and he has 250 acres under a business tenancy. His tenancy is limited to 10 years so he is unwilling to make significant capital investments.
Farmers B pays the landholder £120 an acre rent (£30,000 per year) and he receives £94 per acre BPS (£23,500 per year). The BPS does not cover his rent.
Farmer C, like Farmer A, has a full agricultural tenancy with the same landholder but he also rents an additional 100 acres under annual licence. He pays £75 an acre rent under his tenancy and £130 an acre under the licence contract. He has zero motivation to maintain hedges, ditches etc. on the land he rents under licence.
In all three cases the BPS is providing a guaranteed income for the landholder.
Farmer A may survive after BPS ends. Farmer B will find it difficult to survive and farmer C may be forced to give up the land he rents under licence.
Something has to give.
- Farmers may go broke - this has happened regularly in the past.
- Farmers may find some magic way to replace the BPS payments. Perhaps from the same Magic Money Tree that provided billions to the Government's friends during the Covid pandemic.
There are only so many farm shops, petting farms, ice-cream sheds and yoghurt sheds that the economy can stand! Farm shops etc. require additional labour, additional investment and additional management, while the jobs on the farm still have to be done. If one is working 12 to 18 hours a day there is not much slack for new "enterprises".
Those justifying wine and cheese parties on the grounds that "they have been very busy" haven't a clue what real farm work is all about.
- Landholders may have to accept lower rents.
The problem of dilapidations
Tenants often find it impossible to get landlords to live up to their obligations. Farm houses and farm buildings fall behind reasonable modern expectations and repairs are delayed or never carried out. Many farm houses still have no central heating, no double glazing and none of the facilities that everyone else has come to expect as normal - no "townie" would put up with this.
Life becomes an almost endless battle between tenant and landlord - often with "land agents" standing in the middle when the landlord is either unwilling or unable to negotiate for his/herself.
No battle is more bitterly fought than the one over dilapidations when a tenancy ends - so bitterly fought that buildings end up being demolished and tenants risk losing their life savings. In theory the tenant should be able to claim for any improvements made to the farm and any loss of income caused by landlord's failure to keep buildings in good repair. The landlord should be able to claim for anything the tenant was contracted to do but failed to do - like the maintenance of gates etc.
Advice to tenants: put all your assets into a trust so when the tenancy ends there is nothing for the landlord to claim against. Landlords frequently put land into trusts to avoid paying tax so tenants should use the same trick to protect their assets.
Lawyers and land agents make a great deal of money during dilapidation battles.
There are good landlords who take an active interest in how their land is farmed, who talk to their tenants as a group and as individuals, who are keen for tenants to adopt modern agricultural practice, who are willing to make capital investments when it increases the value of their assets, who invest part of their rental income in the maintenance of farm houses and farm buildings, who wish to ensure that their tenants make a good living and who wish to improve the environment for society, their tenants and themselves.
There are landholders who are good, decent, well-meaning people but incapable of running a business where they have to work with their tenants (they lack people-management skills) and not simply treat them as cash-cows while resenting every penny spent on maintenance.
There are rapacious landlords, out for every penny they can get and determined to maximise their income while making the minimum investment.
Any landholder will recognise which group they fit into.
Subsidies and grants
The range of subsidy and grant payments to agriculture currently include:
- Click here for a straightforward overview.
- Sustainable Farming Incentive - for on-farm work, fairly small scale.
- Local Nature Recovery - encouraging farmers to work together on local environmental projects.
- Landscape Recovery - large scale projects.
The intention of these schemes is to stop handing over cash (with no strings attached) and replace it with payment to farmers for work done for the social good - the maintenance and restoration of our countryside. It is indeed "our" countryside since all land in England is owned by the "Crown" (that's us) and permission to "hold" it is granted in the form of "freehold". You "own" everything on the land (buildings, plants, whatever) but you "hold" the land itself.
Before commenting on these schemes it is worth refreshing our minds about who is responsible for what.
Governments have no money of their own - they are responsible for the efficient and effective use of taxpayers' money provided for the social good - this is a fundamental part of the contract between citizens, as taxpayers, and government. That contract is broken by corruption and irresponsible use of taxpayers' money.
Government responsibilities include:
- A secure food supply without excessive dependence on food from outside the country.
- A secure energy supply without excessive dependence on energy from outside the country.
- Infrastructure: transport (road, rail, air, sea), water supply, electricity supply, gas supply, telecommunications.
- Decent (*) homes for all citizens.
- Decent (*) life-long education for all citizens.
- Decent (*) health care for all citizens.
- Security: domestic (law and order) and international (defence).
- Protection of the environment.
* it would be nice to replace "decent" with "world-beating" - then , and only then, would we have the right to feel "proud" of our country. At the moment we are a long way behind the best - not much to be proud of.
There are no rights without responsibilities and, as citizens, each of us has a duty to contribute to the social good in whatever ways we can. Being a "good citizen" means not avoiding our social responsibilities.
Obviously each of us wants a happy and fulfilling life for ourselves, our families and our friends. However, despite what some politicians say, humans are social animals (we can't get by on our own - we rely on others) and there is such a thing as "society".
Town v country
There is a temptation for those who live in towns and cities to assume that the countryside is full of rich farmers operating mega-farms who all think in the same way, who are in favour of hunting and factory farming and who want to tell everyone else to "keep off my land".
There is a temptation for those in the countryside to see all "townies" as ignorant litter louts who trample on crops, frighten livestock with their dogs (see below), leave gates open and treat the countryside as a theme park and race track for cyclists! "Townies" fail to understand that the countryside, and its lanes, are a farmer's office - a place of work - so lanes will contain slow moving tractors and surfaces will often be muddy - the countryside is a muddy, and sometimes smelly and noisy, place!
Dogs in fields
Each year people are injured, or even killed, by livestock, particularly cows.
One of the reasons is that people take their dog for a walk on a lead and when cows get upset (by the "wolf" as they see it) owners hang on to the lead - this is asking for trouble.
A dog can outrun a cow so let go of the lead. Better the cow chase the dog than the cow trample both of you.
Cows are very protective of their calves so never come between a cow and her calf. Better to give cows a wide berth than to risk being charged by an angry cow.
Most bulls are fine (they have other things on their minds) but some bulls can become very aggressive. If in doubt, don't enter a field containing a bull.
The reality of farming
The reality is very different.
- Only a tiny minority of people who live in the countryside are involved in agriculture. Most rural dwellers commute to work in towns or cities, work at home, or have retired to the countryside.
- The average farm size in England is 87 hectares (214 acres).
- 33% of farmland is rented.
- Average annual income (*) for livestock farmers is £14,100.
- Average annual income (*) for cereal farmers is £63,800.
- The average farm supports 2.9 people.
- Many (most?) farmers don't support hunting across their land. This is certainly the case in Trusley.
- There are wealthy people in the countryside - landholders living off rent from tenants.
- Farmers are not a homogeneous group - like the rest of us, they have a wide spectrum of views about the world. It is true that, on the whole, they tend to be conservative (small "c" and often capital "C") - their lives are dictated by the weather and the rhythms of the year rather then by flavour of the month fads.
- Farmers have always responded to social and market pressure. When, in the 1950/60s, they were asked to produce more food, they were encouraged (with grants!) to rip out hedgerows to create larger fields for larger machines. They are incentivised to use more artificial fertilisers and to use genetically modified seeds to increase yields. When the market price for wheat goes up, more farmers grow wheat.
- It is unfair to blame farmers for the enormous damage done to our countryside over the last half century. Nitrogen run-off from farmland has poisoned our streams and rivers, the reduction in hedgerows and lack of headlands (the motorways of the countryside) has had a horrendous effect on wildlife species.
The mono-culture of The Great Green Deserts of Eastern England is not helpful to wildlife nor pleasing to the eye - it is boring countryside which results in high levels of loneliness, mental illness and rural suicide!
Farmers have followed the demands of society and the market - and, like the rest of us, they work to make a living! Some have bucked the trend and made the personal decision to do otherwise (and frequently reduced their income as a result) - but, on the whole, farmers have simply done what was expected of them.
If you want to blame anyone for the state of our countryside and wildlife habitats, you simply need to look in the mirror - we are all responsible.
* note: this is "income" after costs. A livestock farmers has to buy stock and provide food - as well as covering the cost of equipment needed to run the farm - for ploughing, sowing, spraying and cropping. Then there are vet's fees, auctioneer's fees, "fallen stock" fees, farm secretary's fees (the paperwork for a modern farm is horrendous!) accountant's fees and animal transport costs.
In the case of the 33% of farmers who are tenants, there is rent to pay to the landholder - in 2018 the average rent was £170 per hectare (£69 per acre) so the average 87 hectare (214 acre) farm has to pay £14,790 rent.
Most small farmers are in debt (usually for buying stock or equipment) and, in terms of hours worked, most small farmers earn below the minimum wage.
Talk to farmers
Hundreds of thousands of us go for walks in the countryside - but how many of us have had a conversation with a farmer?
Farming is a lonely life (hence the high suicide rate) and some farmers appear to be miserable gits when in fact they are just shy! (A few actually are miserably gits!)
However, most farmers welcome a chat, especially if the person they are talking to is genuinely interested in the farming way of life and knows a little bit about it. Chat about crops and animals, about who is doing what locally, about a tenant's relationship with the local landholder, about the pressures on farming, about the demands of supermarkets, about family life, about what a farmer's aspirations are. Failing that, there are always the two favourite topics: the weather and DEFRA!
Be careful when talking about "Countryfile" which is often more about the village potter, artist or wood carver than it is about local farmers! Adam Henson's 1,600 acres in the Cotswolds makes him a big agribusiness tenant farmer, not a small one!
It's simply a case of being human and swapping human experiences, wishes and hopes.
It's amazing what you can find out in 15 minutes over a farm gate or stone wall!
When things go seriously wrong
Someone has to produce food.
Someone has to look after the countryside - it won't look after itself - even if "rewilded"!
Certain aspects of our economy should be in public hands: key infrastructure and services should not be the source of profit for private (often foreign) companies. As we have seen over the last few years, private companies charged with providing key infrastructure projects and services can go broke, leaving the taxpayer to clear up the mess.
Food is obviously of strategic importance yet history shows that governments have frequently misunderstood the countryside and those who work in it.
Both the USSR and China decided that the best way to organise food production was through central planning and public (state) ownership of land. Land was seized from landholders and those who worked on the land ("peasants") were instructed to work on collective farms.
Both countries failed - and millions died of starvation as a result of famine when agricultural production plummeted. Peasants saw no purpose in working hard since additional hard work brought no additional personal benefit. People are easy to understand: if those who work least get the same as those who work most then the hard working will do less - it ain't rocket science.
Both countries learned a lesson. Both have now engaged in land reform that returns land to those who work on it and this has resulted in a significant increase in food supply.
Civilisations are built on the back of agricultural surplus. Those working the land produce more than they need for subsistence and sell or barter the surplus.
An unmotivated peasant, without the freedom to generate and sell a surplus, does no more than is necessary to feed his/her family.
In 2021 the government in Sri Lanka decided to tell farmers how to work their land. They dictated that Sri Lanka would "go green" with no use of artificial fertlisers, pesticides etc. The result is serious food shortages and the country is potentially bankrupt.
During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 up to one million people died of starvation and another million emigrated. In this case both Tory and Whig governments decided to support the market and allowed huge quantities of food, particularly grain, to be exported from Ireland even as people were starving. The greed of large landholders and merchants, supported by the MPs they bought and paid for, led directly to the deaths of thousands.
What is to be done?
A balance must be struck between the need to grow food and the need to look after our environment.
Farmers farm to make a living - they will adapt as long as we are clear about what we want them to do and show how they can make a living out of it.
Not all land will be 100% productive - upland sheep farmers would not survive in an open market without help. Naturally they feel angry with Liz Truss when she announces a deal to allow cheap Australian and New Zealkand meat into the UK market without any controls.
Do we want sheep on Welsh hills or do we want all our uplands to revert to scrub? Do we want the land to be managed in the best interest of the environment so farmers can make a living and we can enjoy the countryside? Whatever we want, someone will have to do it and they have every right to be paid for it.
Obviously it isn't fair to give farmers money based solely on how much land they have - the wealthy simply get wealthier!
The government proposals are based on the reasonable idea that payment should depend on an agreement to carry out certain acceptable work and to show that the work has been done or is being done. Defining targets, and monitoring their achievement, become key to ensuring that such a system works - we can't have payment simply based on what farmers promise to do - after all, some of them may not do it!
At the moment the new schemes are about to start pilot trials which will allow more details to be tied down. For example:
- How do tenant farmers enter a scheme if their landlord doesn't agree to it?
- How do we ensure that the payment goes to the people who do the work rather than putting yet more money into the pockets of wealthy landholders like James Dyson et al?
- How do we stop wealthy landholders dumping their tenants, taking land out of food production and walking off with the "rewilding" payment?
- How do we ensure that we meet the number one responsiblity of government: "a secure food supply without excessive dependence on food from outside the country."
Going "green", and cosily environmental, doesn't help if we starve to death because we can't source food from outside the country - just as we are having difficulty sourcing gas today! What level of sustainable self-sufficiency is acceptable?
The best things is wait and see how thing progress - while keeping an eye on what farmers and their organisations say as well as on what environmentalists say.
Solving the problem of land value
Who is buying land - and why?
This quotation is taken from Strutt Parker's "Competition for farms and estates hots up" assessment of rural land values in 2020.
"Lifestyle buyers", "private investors" and "non-farmers" are not farmers - they buy land because it is a sound investment ("they aren't making it any more!") particularly at a time when inflation is rising. Land has become a gambling chip - a hedge against inflation.
This type of activity, forcing up the price of land, is relatively simple to deal with by introducing a Land Value Tax (LVT} based on the open market value of all land nationwide.
- Not a new tax - it replaces Council Tax and Business Rates.
- Simple to understand - an annual, national, flat rate tax on the open market value of all land (rural and urban) - no matter what it is being used for.
("Open Market Value" is what someone would pay for it if it came on the market.)
- Fair -those with most, pay most.
- Impossible to avoid - it is paid by the freeholder and you can't hide land in a Swiss bank account or in a tax haven!
As a replacement for grossly unfair Council Taxes and Business Rates, LVT would go a long way to resolving the problems of land values and land usage. It will also encourage the efficient use of land and, by reducing land values, encourage new entrants into the industry.
Please click here for more details on LVT.