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UK must develop a rural development strategy which protects small family farms

The UK must develop a post-Brexit regional and rural development strategy which protects small family farms, argues Terry Marsden, professor of environmental policy and planning and director of the sustainable places research institute at Cardiff University.

Brexit represents a profound challenge and opportunity to re-design agri-food, regional and rural policy.

 

While overall UK public sector funding has been far the largest area of funding to affect rural areas, they have also critically relied upon ring-fenced EU programmes associated with Regional Development and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding.

 

These programmes were based upon a needs-based set of priorities and designed to achieve the EU mission to reduce regional economic disparities, build capacities and support farming families in delivering a combination of public and market goods.

 

Critical

 

It is critical now we have Brexit, and the reality of detaching ourselves from these complex policy frameworks, that the UK develops a new and collective vision and strategy of its own sustainable rural and regional development.

 

This should be designed to foster the already unfolding transition to a post-carbon and more inclusive growth-oriented model of rural economic development; and in so doing to build upon the regional distinctiveness and potentialities the UK holds in developing a world-leading innovative green economy.

 

This is an economy and vision which will need to place rural areas and their natures, managed by varied combinations of stakeholders including landholders, foresters and designated landscapes, at the heart of macro-economic and environmental policy.

 

Integrated

 

One implication of creating and developing this vision and strategy is to examine ways in which we can create more integrated policy making and delivery which both reduces spatial and social inequalities across the UK, while also recognising the diversity of the ecological economy; not least by developing more bespoke place-based and partnered approaches.

 

This means harnessing the energies of family farmers, environmental interests and rural communities together.

 

Not since the war has the UK had such an opportunity to integrate regional, rural and agricultural policy as sustainable rural development policy - what I call a ‘farming plus’ approach.

 

Central

 

Farming becomes a central vehicle for delivering sustainable rural development along with a wider range of multi-functional rural economic activities such as renewable energy, sustainable tourism, and rural enterprises.

 

This is part and parcel of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s vision of the ‘new rural development paradigm’ which is now being progressed in many regions of Europe.

 

As a result, it is timely to place family farming firmly back into the rural economy and to develop support and advisory mechanisms which promote multi-functional local economies and businesses.

 

Support

 

Clearly the two major areas of potential support for the above approach are associated with the UK regional development objectives in its ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ - so far unspecified - and ‘transitional’ and post-Brexit UK agricultural support.

 

Proactive discussions with Whitehall are needed so we can articulate and promote our vision and strategy, and justify critical funding for rural regions in both of these areas.

 

However, the argument will need to be won that whatever the volume of funding made available by the UK Government under these schemes, it needs to be based upon: (a) reducing GDP disparities across rural areas and regions; (ii) a needs-based assessment, which incorporates the special circumstances of sparsely populated communities, and (iii) allowing support to continue, at least on a tapering model for farm production support, based upon a wider multifunctional approach depicted above.

 

Danger

 

There is a distinct danger here that whatever funding is made available and eventually allocated under these schemes will be (i) highly competitive, especially between the regions in England and the devolved nations; (ii) linked to a narrow concept of productivity and growth which discriminates against rural and sparsely populated areas, favouring urban agglomerated economies; and (iii) too heavily focused on non-marketised public goods instead of a combination of food and fibre production and services.

 

As well as a set of transition processes, farming and rural communities need a clear vision so they can invest in future generations. This justifies a formula-driven approach to allocate funding on a regional and devolved basis.

 

Certainty

 

This could be allocated and reviewed over 5-7 year planning periods so as to give some certainty and review of investments over time.

 

The Defra consultation ‘ Health and Harmony’ casts a far too narrow and binary definition of public and private goods, and fails to take into consideration the need to develop the transition to local and regional sustainable food production systems and economic development.

 

A ‘farming plus’ approach must be more integrated and targeted at sustaining the rural economy and the diversity of small landholders and family farmers in ways which build their capacities and infrastructures to be major delivery agents for the rural economy.

 

Accept

 

We should not accept that the continued concentration of farming and the removal of family farmers is an inevitable outcome.

 

The EU lost 1 in 4 farms between 2003 and 2013.

 

A UK post-Brexit policy needs to urgently address this attrition, by investing in farms and multi-functional rural businesses and their markets which will then deliver high quality food, sustainability and health benefits for the UK population as a whole.

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