Agricultural subsidies: public money should mean public access

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.

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.