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.

  • LG

    Why should there be such an exchange? They are entirely separate issues. Simply legislate free, responsible access, as per Scotland. You don’t have to continue to shovel money to landowners whether access is included or not.

    • Bab Boon

      That’s true LG.
      .
      But whilst the Agri-busines farms would thrive in any case the hill farms can’t.
      And if they go bang the countryside we would wish to raom and enjoy won’t exist, it’ll be acre after acre of bracken. No sheep, no cows, nada.

  • I don’t see why there should be subsidies for land that isn’t productive. If we’re talking about productive land, we wouldn’t roam on it.

  • shaun Saunders

    Hi keep around 1oo sheep on rented land
    And get no subsidies why should the landlords get it and me i am producing something they are not at the moment the landowners with big amounts of land are getting fat for nothing i think subsidies should be got rid of all together the commodities would find there own level

  • K Good

    I’m amazed to hear that Gove is proposing something good at last. This all seems eminently sensible, including the responsible access element. I’ve never understood why we subsidise farmers to produce commodities which could easily be traded in a non- subsidised market. We then would pay the true cost of our food.

  • Malcolm Simpson

    Hi Merryn,

    I am a great admirer of your viewpoint on many issues but certainly not on that of agricultural support.
    I am an arable land owner with 300 acres. I have worked to make the land as efficient as possible with better drainage, better circulation around the farm and am using as much animal manure as possible to reduce the amount of fertiliser to be used. I also comply with the current legislation and have a proportion of the landed seeded with recommended nectar mix. Despite all of this, the land is not profitable without the CAP subsidy. The price for the cereals is determined by world markets not UK, which means that the levels that prices achieve are based on extremely large low cost farms worldwide.
    I am sure that the majority of UK farms are in the same boat and that many would go out of business without some subsidy protection.The huge farms that people bang on about are very few, and a cap on payments would easily solve that problem.The law of unintended consequences would then see the countryside return to a neglected state and the UK would have less income, be less self sufficient for food and have greater unemployment.

    • LG

      Malcolm, there are many worthy causes for the government to spend money on. But giving welfare payments to some of the richest people in the country isn’t one of them. Making land ‘efficient’ isn’t a public good. If you can’t make a return on your asset by growing cereals then perhaps try being more entrepreneurial, grow something else, open a farm shop, milk sheep and sell cheese, grow strawberries, or sell up and do something else. The taxpayer doesn’t owe you a living.

    • Mary

      Quite right, like you we farm a similar acreage organically. Farming is not viable without subsidy because there is not a level playing field. Large factory farms distort the situation, and it would make sense to cap the payments to these large farms as they can enjoy economies of scale, and often have their nose in the trough of environmental/solar diversification schemes anyway. The smaller/medium farms need support. There needs to be a move back to more natural farming methods for health reasons. Inputs like glyphosate (roundup) end up in the feed of animals, and ultimately in our guts. Hence the probable cause of much ‘auto-immune’ health problems we see today. The health of a nation is fundamentally influenced by what we put in our mouths. Moving into ever larger farms unless it’s checked now will bring ever more chemically grown produce, a lack of diversity of product, and reliance on dubious products imported from abroad. Look after our small/medium farmers before it’s too late.
      On the issue of ‘right to roam’ – why should people have extensive access to what is the factory floor of our working farms. There is enuf legislation/rules to contend with, it would not be practical or acceptable for a farm to accommodate the crowds that could well arise from this type of access. Most farmers work 7 days/week, few if any holidays, and make sacrifices to build up their farming enterprise.

    • Michael Donovan

      Hello Malcolm. In the 1960s my grandfather made a nominal profit on 300 arable acres. You’re doing well to make anything on it today. Have you moved to zero-till? Do you use contractors, share implements, or use kit which is old but serviceable? There are so many variables. I visit hundreds of farms with great cost cutting ideas, and have been publishing them in a magazine (Practical Farm Ideas). But it is amazing how few farmers take notice, or think it either necessary or possible to make changes. The chug on with ploughs and power harrows. You would probably make a better return by changing your farming system. I have visited people making a good living from 5 acres – not combinable crops of course. Good luck for 2018 Mike

    • Momoko Miyamoto

      Subsidizing unprofitable businesses is the antithesis of capitalism and it does not happen in the overwhelming majority of UK industries. There is an argument for maintaining national self-sufficiency in key agricultural commodities but these should be produced in the most efficient manner possible i.e. large industrialised farms – which by and large are profitable without subsidy. Large scale farming can be environmentally responsible if regulated correctly. We let small high street shops go bust because they cannot compete with giants like Amazon who offer the consumer lower prices, more choice, better service and convenience.Why should small farms be any different?

  • Phil Harvey

    I think Merryn’s article is excellent. In exchange for subsidy there should be public benefit. Every farm business should have a conservation/landscape diversity plan, and an access plan as a condition of public money. But I feel planned access would be a better way to go in England than ‘right to roam’, partly because of population pressure and partly to ensure access, such as footpaths and stiles are maintained and have a geographic rationale. In Scotland, it is great to have the right to roam but not much use where access is blocked by electric fences, barbed wire and deer fences.

    Farmers have had it their own way for far too long. A system of rural apartheid has been allowed to develop where most farmers have been feather-bedded (land subsidy, tax subsidy, business subsidy) and all other rural dwellers and businesses get nothing. In return, we get a despoiled landscape and cheap nasty food. Absurd. The NFU will bleat about ‘food security’ and the wonderful landscape to maintain their privileges.Laughable. CAP needs to be replace by a rural subsidy that works for the common good and looks after those who most need it.

    • CAT

      Does this mean that you want the UK farmer to stop farming and leave us all subject to non-UK controlled food production with lower food and welfare standards? Access to farmland is still access to someone else’s property….if it is in production this does not mean that the production should be put at risk so that you can wander at will. If I am paying more tax so that someone else can be subsidised as they are unable to work, does that mean I should have access to their life?

    • LG

      Quite right. No end of subsidies. They don’t pay business rates, they don’t pay IHT, they don’t pay fuel tax, they receive subsidies for the ownership of land rather than production, they don’t need planning consents, etc, etc,
      It’s a complete scam on the taxpayer. And don’t believe the “we won’t grow food if you don’t subsidise us’ rubbish – the subsidies aren’t connected to production. The single farm payment is paid out regardless of production. So it’ll make no difference to production if it’s removed.

    • John Hillson

      With respect Phil, the public already get the benefit of cheap food, allowing them to roam is a major nuisance and places crippling liability on the farmer if for example a person is attacked by a cow with a new born calf. These days people cannot control their own pet dogs, two days ago my neighbour had his sheep attacked and they have awful injuries, there are hundreds if not thousands of sheep a year who are killed by dogs out of control. There are changes which should be made to how the subsidies are allocated.

  • CAT

    The farm subsidies were/are to ensure that the farming sector can continue to provide the UK with food without losing market share to imports from directly subsidised and other agriculture. The UK benefits from having home-produced food, and saves on air-miles since Mr Gove is making this an environmental issue. Not sure why subsidies should provide for turning the British agriculture sector into some sort of playground.

    • LG

      Your arguments for subsidy equally applies to almost every other industry. Why should farmers be subsidised? Every widget maker can argue they should be subsidised so that widget making stays in this county and cuts down on widget air miles. So What? There are plenty of causes I can think of that are much more worthy.

      • John Hillson

        LG food has to be near the top of importances, subsidies ensure your food is cheap, it would need to double if not treble in price if subsidies were removed. Agriculture, completely different from any other sector has to take the price offered, not the price asked for so we are totally vulnerable to the appalling treatment by multi nationals who are indiscriminate vultures. We can all probably manage without our widgets, try to manage without food !

        • LG

          Currently, subsidies are not provided to encourage food production. They are doled out to landowners according to their land ownership. Subsidies have nothing to do with food production. Subsidies subsidise land ownership.

          • Tony Short

            Exactly and that is what is wrong with the Common Agricultural Policy. When we joined the EU we knew CAP would be a disaster for UK farmers and so it has proved. It’s one of the fundamental reasons we have to leave the EU.

  • CAT

    before we all get up on our hind legs to congratulate Mr Gove, could we bear in mind that this man is partly responsible for the current mess we are in and would say and do anything to scramble up the greasy pole.

  • Charlie

    I agree with Goves plans, however surely first should be promoting more home grown food through more arable and cattle farming comes into the equation. It seems an ideal time to help here so we as a country are more independent and have better food security. Investment into the latest technology and helping those farmers that need it will help bring our home grown food nearer the costs of imports. never a better time than the next few years to do this!

  • Tony Short

    Oh dear. In the two world wars the population of Great Britain came close to starving because the majority of our food was imported. When the supply routes were attacked the supply of food reaching Britain was cut off. After WW2 the government realised that farming was a strategic asset and devised the price suport system which allowed farmers to know in advance the minimum price they would receive for their crops. This was highly successful and turned farming in Britain into a profitable enterprise for the first time in a century. When we joined the EU we knew that the Common Agricultural Policy would be a disaster for British farmers and so it has proved. We thought, incidentally, that the loss of a profitable farming sector would be offfset by gains in the manufacturing sector. It was not. Today we have hundreds of farmers going bankrupt every year and all farms dependant to a greater or lesser extent on taxpayers money doled out by overpaid EU bureacrats.
    To think that the problems of UK farming can be solved by paying farmers to plant wild-flower meadows and woodland instead of producing food is, frankly, stupid.

    • LG

      Why should “the problems of UK farming’ be solved by the taxpayer? Try being a bit more entrepreneurial and make a living without welfare, or sell to someone who will. The Kiwis learned to live without subsidies, why shouldn’t UK farmers? You complain about the EU but want to continue receiving the CAP subsidies. Class.

      • GK

        Tory farmers and land owners demanding socialist subsidies. Class

    • William Fowler

      Tony, I remember how Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the Trade Unions fought like two dogs over one bone and saw the result being the de-industrialisation of the UK. This was how the gains which could have been provided by the manufacturing sector were lost. I totally agree with your telling final sentence.

    • Michael Donovan

      I’m not sure you can say the CAP has been ‘a disaster’ for British farmers. Their land is an asset which has risen faster than London property, the Stock Market… This rise has of course meant it is difficult for people without assets to join the farming club – so we provide grants and special assistance to them which is on top of the normal Basic Payment subsidy. Farmers bankrupt themselves by borrowing too much or producing too little at too great a cost. The bureaucrats aren’t at fault – they simply dole out the money after doing a complex process of evaluation.

      • pigly

        The only reason land values have risen is because investors hope that they will get planning permission for houses on it. Get rid of all the immigrants and the land prices will fall back along with all the house prices … if that’s what you want!.

    • pigly

      What common sense at last? Forgive me neither Brussels or Westminster could ever approve something quite so sane. Just keep planting all the cola bottles upside down and something will be sure to grow that the people will recognise and then vote for us.

  • John Hillson

    Having farmed since the mid 70’s, I have seen big farmers getting paid too much subsidy, the same as some moorland farmers who buy every parcel of land which comes up for sale whereas the lowland livestock and family farmers suffer the most poverty of all and haven’t got the money to survive let alone buy land or grow their businesses. Providing a farmer is full time doing his work why not pay them a top limit of £25-30,000 per year which is enough to live off and do whatever they like with their farm system which may or may not be profitable. The public who pay the subsidy need to understand that without it the price of food would have to double or treble so that farmers could survive, paying subsidy already serves its purpose by the provision of cheap food, it doesn’t give the public a right of access to the land and it is a fact that people and farm or wild animals are not a good mix, the public immediately bring their dogs and just look how many sheep are being killed as a result, people are getting attacked by cows with calves etc and the farmer is liable !!! Farms are not playgrounds they are dangerous places and farm systems don’t need to be constrained by footpaths and rights of way etc to allow the public in, animals need access to all fields as a part of normal management
    .

    • LG

      John, “the price of food would have to double or treble so that farmers could survive” – No.

      Firstly, the taxpayer isn’t responsible for whether farmers ‘survive’ or not. If a farmer goes out of business, the land is sold and someone else farms the land.

      Secondly, subsidies don’t affect the price of UK food, since the subsidies are not connected to production, they are handed out as the single farm payment. Many recipients don’t even farm the land any more – they’re called slipper farmers.

      The effect of not doling out agri subsidies would be that land values would fall, and farmers might become more entrepreneurial. Some businesses would fail and they would be replaced by other businesses with a lower capital cost.

      Your points about access would have some merit if it were not the fact that public access is available elsewhere, e.g. Scotland, without all the supposedly unsurmountable problems you predict.

      • Alick Munro

        Extending right to roam would be of great service to the homeless who are mentally ill and can’t survive in hostels, and those addicted to alcohol or drugs who are not allowed into dry hostels. These people need camping places.
        We are not likely to face a world war in which we are threatened with being starved into submission. We do however face a huge balance of payments deficit in our current account. If we leave the EU, import substitution and exporting, and employing unskilled labour may all justify subsidies.

        • PeterGriffiths

          Are you seriously suggesting that people with mental health problems or drug addiction should just be dumped in the countryside to sink or swim. Can you even begin to imagine the effect of cities solving their problems by pushing them onto rural communities. What happens in winter? You may think it’s cold in the city, but just try camping out in the countryside, were it’s several degrees colder, wet, muddy and with no hot water or cooking facilities, not to mention sanitation.
          Alick Munro you may be, but you are certainly not a smart Alick.

      • Malcolm Simpson

        Firstly if the farmer goes out of business after farming efficiently, who is going to operate the farm more efficiently, unless you think that all of the UK small and medium farmers are incompetent.
        As I have already mentioned the large farms could easily be subjected to a cap on subsidy if they are felt to have sufficient advantage from the benefits of scale.
        Productivity could be factored in to arable subsidies, but I believe that the greatest correlation to output is acreage which negates your repeated point that subsidies based on acreage have nothing to do with food production.

        Secondly since the selling price of cereals is completely out of the farmers hands unlike many other industries, and is set by the large scale low cost farms world wide, the profitability or otherwise of a farm is only partially affected by a farmers efforts.

        Thirdly I believe that you earlier referred to replacing millions of acres of loss making arable land (without CAP subsidies) with millions of acres of fringe activities. We can only eat so many strawberries! the loss of a significant amount of the Uk cereal production would be catastrophic.

        Fourthly since you constantly refer to the fact that farms should not cost the tax payer in subsidies, can I take that that you are not in favour of any protective tariffs for any UK products without which the taxpayer would gain in cheaper prices, but would lose in the wiping out of much more of our dwindling manufacturing industry, which is now down to less than 20% of our GDP.

        I am sure that issues of right to roam can be ironed out with cooperation and goodwill from both sides since I believe that most farmers are open to sensible expansion of rights which can be enshrined in legislation.

        • LG

          Your defence of subsidies lacks reason. Subsidies are currently handed out on the basis of land ownership. Their value has become capitalised in the value of land. Remove them, and the value of land should reduce.
          Crops are grown to secure a gross margin. If there was no margin, the crops wouldn’t be grown. Crops are not grown because they are subsidised to be grown. Without subsidies they would still be grown or not depending on the margin available.
          The result of removing subsidies will mean that some farming businesses will be forced to change, or become more efficient, or more entrepreneurial, or become unviable. If one farmer goes out of business, that doesn’t mean the land won’t be cropped, because someone else will take it over, at a price that reflects the returns available. It is the size, structure and financial efficiency of the businesses farming the land that will change.
          In answer to your point about tariffs, there may or may not be strategic reasons to impose import tariffs, such as to reflect higher domestic environmental standards.

      • pigly

        Not quite true. In the 1930’s all the farmers were subsisting and the land went to rack and ruin. it was only when WW2 came that they found a use for us and the land got farmed again profitably. Don’t be under the illusion that there will always be another mug to follow the last one that went bust..

        • LG

          Just let me know when you want to walk away and I’ll be happy to step in and farm your abandoned land. So will lots of others.

  • pigly

    I am a small farmer with 50 years’ experience. I must tell you that what you have written is the biggest amount of bull I have ever read, and you have managed to infuriate me. you are typical of the people who are so disconnected from farming and agriculture that you don’t even understand where your food comes from , how and why. It is such a big subject and so widely misunderstood that i could write a whole article for you, but I have to correct some misapprehensions. Firstly, what do you think that the purpose of farming is? The whole and sole purpose of farming is to feed the people. No more and no less. Just as some people look after their houses and some let them descend into slums, so some farmers are better at looking after their farms than others. Let me make it quite clear we don’t want your subsidies at all, we never did … ever. We were given subsidies to keep the price of YOUR food down in the shops. Please take away all the subsidies and pay the proper price for food … about double what you pay now! I already hear you whinging. The whole subsidy system is a con and it is farmers that are being conned not the general public. It’s just that all the farming organisations are very poor at telling the public the truth. If you want to give me a subsidy to breed sparrows or pigeons then more the fool you. You are being taxed to provide sparrows that no one wants to eat. It is typical of the whole taxation system that is rotten to the core. There is no need for half the taxes you pay and no need for half the civil service you are forced to pay but we don’t hear the public whinging about that because they are too ignorant to understand where there money goes and how much of it is wasted on fruit cake ideas dreamt up by moronic politicians who just want to make it in the public domain. Go through the public accounts committee expenditure and die laughing. I will willingly stand in front of any committee, any MP and crucify them based upon the performance of all governments since Macmillan who was the last gentleman politician who had any honour. Our do-gooder politicians of every party have given away most of what we ever had and they have left our people poorer than they ever needed to be. Total mismanagement is the understatement of the year. Edward Heath was a prime traitor who sold this country into debt from which we will take decades to recover. Now as for access to land, be it my land or anyone else’s, will you object to me walking into your back garden and setting up a tent for the night? I would think so and quite fairly. You own your back garden and it is yours to do with as you will. Likewise I own my farm and it is mine to do with as I will. I have had barbed wire fences cut allowing cattle to escape by so called environmentalists who don’t even know what a group of owls is called. At one time I ran the largest pig unit in the south east employing 29 people. It was closed down by the council because they said it made too much smell and they were getting complaints from people who had moved into the countryside from London. 29 people lost their jobs and I now sit on 8 acres of empty buildings with absolutely no use which could be turned into human housing but the council don’t want that so it all sits there empty. Very clever and a great achievement!. You really can’t farm in the countryside anymore if you live near a town. So import all the food and watch the prices double and treble; i don’t care. My job as a farmer and landowner is to produce food, not to entertain and educate people who don’t understand or really care about the countryside. Keep them in London where they belong. They come to the countryside to get away from the immigrants and then say they aren’t racist. If you want to introduce a tax, let it be on people moving out of a city. Farming must take priority in the countryside and if you don’t like the country smells stick with the smells of stale curry and fish and chips preferably living 10 to a room in high rise flats, full of drugs and alcohol whilst watching daytime television. Have a nice life … not near me please!

  • William Fowler

    Merryn, now you are being silly, please stick to what you know. Subsidies are about food and feeding the Nation and cannot be the lever for giving a very small percentage of the population who are not satisfied with green roads, bridle paths or public footpaths but want to legally intrude upon privately owned land, access. Sure, farm subsidies are not fairly distributed and some, especially tree-planting, are abused, but what you should be asking yourself is what if farmers decided to plant and harvest, stock-breed and slaughter just for themselves. What state would the country find itself then? As things are, getting on near half of our food is imported but then I suppose our big cities with their buying power would be happy if all of it were, just so long as their inhabitants could walk anywhere and over everything in the countryside.

  • Michael Donovan

    Michael Gove was ‘whooped’ by delegates at last weeks Oxford Real Farming Conference (which is aimed at alternative farmers, some who farm big acreages), and greeted with some approval by the longstanding OFC event. Farmers voted leave and may look like turkeys voting for Christmas, but some are not happy to receive such large quantities of public cash for simply being in the fortunate position of owning farmland. Gove’s ideas of changing the system need serious consideration from everyone, be they pig or arable farmers. Access to the countryside is a small, but important part of the equation. My farm has footpaths and I have to be careful where the cows calve in the summer as they can be very aggressive.

  • Simon Peacock

    Paying huge amounts of money for the preservation of assets that are unproductive benefits the greedy over the needy. You could equally well argue that the £4.5 billion plus renovation of the palaces of Westminster and Buckingham is a vainglorious hangover of empire. The Queen lives at Windsor and Buckingham Palace has no great architectural merit. The Houses of Parliament are a gothic tour de force but no longer serve the need they were designed to satisfy. Parliament could move to Manchester as the BBC did. It would be more centrally located and cost savings would be enormous. St. Pancras is now a first class modern hotel because it adapted to serve commercial needs rather than sentimental whimsy. Landowners should not expect subsidy. Coal mines, ship builders, wool mills, steel plants, ports, car manufacturers and the armed forces have all had to adapt or die. Hill farms are not a farmer curated Disney style attraction for tourists to enjoy for our pitifully short summer at the expenses of the rest of society.