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Tony Hockley is Director of the Policy Analysis Centre, and teaches Behavioural Public Policy at the LSE. He is a former government Special Adviser. He lives in the New Forest, where he is chair of the New Forest Commoners Defence Association, founded in 1909.

In her 2009 Nobel address, Elinor Ostrom argued that: “a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in people”. There can be few policies that could more obviously ignore this advice than the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). An overbearing, one-size-fits-all prescription to the management of European landscapes has done significant and lasting environmental harm.

Even within ‘Pillar 2’, where the EU allows Member States a degree of national initiative, the tendency is towards prescription over self-determination. Such systems of control and the denial of local autonomy seem designed to bring out the worst human motivation rather than the best.

The Agriculture Bill being debated this week offers a real opportunity to right some of the wrongs that have been done to our countryside. Nowhere is this positive potential more obvious than in our commonland, where the tendency towards co-operation rather than competition is part of a culture, that has struggled to survive the heavy hand of the CAP. Policies that will work to bring out the best in those who are committed to these very special but complex landscapes, where traditional farming practices have survived against all of the odds stacked against them, should also work well on the simpler enclosed landscapes.

The inclusion of “cultural heritage” as a target for future financial support. and of rights of access balanced with “better understanding of the environment”, reveals a clear intention to rebuild local pride in the public goods produced in our countryside, and in the people who are central to delivering them. These are economically fragile communities, for whom the income support provided by the CAP’s Basic Payments Scheme has both been a lifeline and a curse.

The new vision for the UK is a world away from the dehumanised, controlling, and industrial perspective of the CAP. But the devil is in the detail and the implementation, with fundamental two questions to be answered.

Firstly, will the Government really allow a thousand flowers to bloom?

Secondly, will the transition cause more problems than it resolves, as two contrary systems run side by side?

The Bill gives substantial powers to the Secretary of State, not only determining what constitutes a “public good” across a range of outputs from farm productivity to climate change mitigation, but also in determining the relative emphasis between one output and another. The capacity for more micro-management and prescription remains substantial, whether by intent or accident, and whether it happens at the outset or by increments. Any system that is to bring out the best of human motivation will, by necessity, be variable and complex. The natural tendency of state agencies will be to build conformity and simplicity.

This tension is particularly evident in the New Forest; a precious, distinctive and extraordinarily biodiverse landscape. It has been protected and maintained for centuries by the local families who remain committed to grazing livestock across its heaths, mires, and woods. Informal systems based on trust, reputation, and communication have sustained this essential practice, carried out alongside normal busy lives, whatever the whim of the state: The vagaries of national policy for the New Forest have included commercial exploitation, land sales, military training, road building, and a confused host of designations (now including “National Park”). It is unsurprising that most of the common land of southern England has been lost. Thankfully the communal, forceful defiance of the New Forest commoners, honed over centuries of battles with the state, has held out against the onslaught of fashionable public policy.

The New Forest remains a rare example within which the “commoners” continue to organise voluntarily through their own association rather than through a statutory council, and in which absolutely anyone can take a cause to the monthly Court of Verderers. But it remains exceptionally fragile. Where once the threat was of the land being lost and common rights forcibly removed, today the primary challenge is economic. Ironically the high level of protection, accessibility and attractiveness are making it unaffordable for the next generation to continue the practice of commoning. Yet it is this practice upon which everything else hangs. For this landscape the real test of “public money for public goods” will be whether the new system will be able to address the economic fragility of the vocational system of common grazing, whilst addressing quite different risks elsewhere in Britain.

The lengthy transition from the CAP to the new environmental land management system, extending to 2028 or later, may be essential in order to avoid destabilising disruptions to food supply and rural livelihoods, but may also generate its own problems. The provision to pay off anyone who decides to quit farming, by way of a “delinked” payment (Clause 7), looks to have the unintended consequence for anyone whose animals graze common land of effectively barring future occupants of their smallholding from being supported to ensure the grazing of the common land. This could have devastating consequences for the New Forest, given the scarcity of smallholdings and young commoners’ reliance on rented land and homes as their only viable option.

Repeated statements from Michael Gove indicate that he understands the strong desire within the communities responsible for our iconic landscapes to protect and improve the environment they care for. They also reveal an appreciation of the value of traditional farming practices to these landscapes, and of their fragility. It is impossible to know, however, whether a successor at DEFRA will show the same consideration. The Agriculture Bill, therefore, leaves far too much at stake.

If the “unfrozen moment” presented by Brexit to take back control is really to be used to maximum advantage for our countryside then it must be made much clearer that power really will be devolved to some of the most fragile communities that manage it day in and day out. Self-determination will finally set people free to deliver the full diversity of public goods, with direct accountability for their achievements. Taking back control of our landscape must mean more than the prescription of one public body simply replaced by the prescription of another.

9 comments for: Tony Hockley: Taking back control of agriculture must mean empowering local communities, not Whitehall

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