Agricultural subsidies: public money should mean public access

In the post-Brexit reform of agricultural subsidies, landowners in receipt of public money should expect the public to be given access to their land, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


A-ramblin' we will go
(Image credit: Franz Marc Frei)

I'm enjoying an awful lot of the Brexit process. But possibly the thing I am enjoying the most is the unexpected agreement between between two men I like, but most people assume wouldn't have much time for each other: environment secretary Michael Gove and intensely dedicated rewilding advocate and environmentalist George Monbiot.

Gove has just announced an outline of his plans to get rid of the EU's horrible and "unjust" Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system, which currently allocates cash to farmers in the UK on the basis of how much land they own. This is nice for the Dysons and dukes of the UK but, as Gove points out, it also allocates the most cash to those who already have the highest levels of personal wealth; fails to discriminate between farmers who would be profitable without subsidies and those that would just collapse (think grain vs hill); and of course distorts the price of UK land (although our IHT system plays a part in this too).

Gove reckons we would be better off entirely transforming the payments so that we pay for "planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, contributing to improved water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states". Monbiot agrees (so far, Gove's ideas are "good news", he says). So do most other people. Everyone knows the system needs reform and everyone knows that reform has to come with an environmental bent.

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But there is one part of Gove's potential reforms (I say potential as there is an awful lot of consultation to come) that hasn't yet had quite the attention it should have: he also mentioned that part of the price of continuing to rake in public cash would probably have to do with public access to land.

In England and Wales the public has a limited "right to roam": you can go where you like on what is known as "public access land" and much of the coast is free access, but a lot of land still remains firmly private you can only cross it if there is a public footpath or bridleway. Things are different in Scotland, where everyone has access to all land and inland waterways as long as they behave responsibly (this means you can camp, cycle, canoe etc); we don't have "no trespassing" signs up here.

What if the price of keeping a subsidy system is UK-wide right to roam? I can't see big landowners being particularly keen on the idea. But then again, I can't see taxpayers being particularly keen on continuing to pay their bills without some very obvious payback.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.