Equality in the Countryside - a rural manifesto

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

rural-manifestoJanuary 6, 2016 saw the launch of two important documents at the Real Farming Conference in Oxford. The first one the latest book by Colin Tudge entitled “Six Steps Back to the Land” and published by Green Books (review of said book to follow in due course) and the second the manifesto “Equality in the Countryside”.

“Equality in the Countryside, A Rural Manifesto for the Parliamentary Opposition”, by Landworkers' Alliance (http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/), The Land Magazine (http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/) and the Family Farmers' Association, is a document to challenge, like the book by Colin Tudge, the way we look at farming and why things need to change. It is intended for the current parliamentary opposition to help them form their policies.

The manifesto is to be part of a campaign, according to Simon Fairlie of the Land Magazine), against a bogus countryside – one in which most people who live there don't work there. And he is right there.

It is sad but has to be acknowledged that most people who live in the countryside today work in towns, and people are being pushed off the land as farms get bigger and employ fewer people. Villages and the countryside has become no more, in many, if not most places, than dormitories for the city workers, who push the locals out because the locals cannot afford the house prices and social housing is (no longer) available in the villages.

The manifesto is aimed primarily at the progressive parliamentary opposition. Simon Fairlie of The Land magazine stated: “With a reinvigorated Labour opposition, and a body of Scottish Nationalists committed to land reform, we are now in a better position to challenge the orthodoxy that has held sway under the influence of the Country Land and Business Association, the National Farmers’ Union, and Scottish Land and Estates.”

The aim of the manifesto is to nudge policy towards equality and greater access to land and employment for people who live in the countryside and people who want to live in the countryside. There are 46 recommendations, although there could, and should, have been many more, possibly. Here are some highlights (the full manifesto can be downloaded as a PDF file from the website of the Landworkers' Alliance at http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/manifesto-final-low.pdf):

Here is a sample of recommendations for action from the Manifesto:

  • The Land Registry should not be privatized. The register of who owns which land should be completed, and made easily and freely accessible on line. A cadastral map for each municipality should be made publicly available at council offices, as it is in countries such as France and Spain.

  • The sell-off of county farms should be halted (except where county farmland can be sold for development and the proceeds used to acquire more or better land). Local authorities should be re-empowered to acquire land for rent to small-scale farmers and new entrants where there is a proven need.

  • Common Agricultural Policy direct subsidies should be capped at €150,000 per individual farmer, releasing an estimated £4million. The ceiling should be lowered progressively over time to a level that supports a wider range of thriving family farms.

  • Much organically produced food and animal feed is not labelled as such because the costs of certification are too high for small-scale producers. The burden of labeling and certification should instead be borne by farmers who employ chemicals or other ecologically suspect practices, rather than by organic farmers. In other words, food products that have been produced using artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified materials should be clearly labelled as such.

  • Increase investment in council housing and social housing in villages.

  • Measures should be taken to ensure that recently introduced government support for self-build housing is focussed on affordable housing, and not luxury housing.

  • All rural local authorities to set targets within their area for the reduction of carbon emissions through renewable energy generation, including solar, wind and micro-hydro — especially community schemes; and through energy saving measures such as insulation of buildings.

  • Support should be provided for the creation of “village service stations” in rural settlements that combine retail provision of food and essential goods with post-office and banking services, car-hire and minibus services, etc

  • Include land management (horticulture, arable crops, animal husbandry, forestry etc) as a subject at secondary schools on a par with academic subjects.

  • Reintroduce the fuel duty escalator, a ratcheted annual increase of carbon tax on petrol and diesel, including red diesel, with the proceeds earmarked for public transport provision.

Now let's look at some of those points, though not all, listed above, through my lens:

Land: The Land Registry should remain public and a proper one; one that everyone has easy access to. There is not much more that can be said to that but, maybe, if one if so inclined “Amen!”

Housing: More council housing and more self-build, and while the Tories according to Simon Fairlie have done a great deal – I must have missed that somewhere – towards self-build we need more of the kind of self-build where people can build, more or less, the kind of home that they wish to build, whether in wood, straw, Earthships, or whatever. The problem is the price of development land – we need more affordable self-build. Here one might mention the work of the Ecological Land Co-op, who are all about providing affordable land for self-build for smallholders. In addition to that any smallholding should be permitted to have building, regardless as to whether the status is that of “agricultural ties” or what have you.

Energy: The countryside will be a big provider as oil runs out in the form water, wind, solar, biomass, but profits should be kept within communities rather than exported to shareholders. However, biomass must not come at the expense of food, a points that Colin Tudge makes so well in his book.

Transport: Reduce private vehicle transport, improve public transport, but also village hubs with shops, post office, pub, bus stop and car hire. For a village to be alive and vibrant it needs shops of all kinds, as well and especially a post office. If we wish to reduce private motor vehicle transport then proper public transport for the countryside is a must and it must be brought back and that includes local railroad connections.

Education: As far as education is concerned we need to bring back the agricultural extension system and include farming and food production in school curricula. But the current thinking of government is that such school subjects are not required, not good for league tables, and such, and that only academic subjects should be taught in schools and colleges. That must change once again, as there are all too many young people who are not necessarily academically minded and would love to train for career in horticulture, agriculture, woodland management and forestry.

Environment: More trees and fewer sheep for uplands; more agriculture in green belts, instead of 'horses grazing under pylons'. And what we need more than anything is smallholdings and small farms without any red tape to entangle people wishing to establish those. When it comes to trees we also need more woodlands, and to manage the existing woodlands in the country everywhere properly.

Rebecca Laughton of the Landworkers’ Alliance stated: “For decades, the number of farms and the number of farm workers have declined remorselessly, while the cost of rural housing has become increasingly unaffordable. It is time we reversed these trends, and it is not rocket science to do so.”

She also talked about the need to get more young people into agriculture, and to put feeding people and environmental protection above corporate profit and that definitely is a no-brainer.

One issue that, alas, that even in this manifesto, no one dares to tackle, it would appear, is the need for proper land reform. And with land reform, or agrarian reform, I do mean here, yes, I do, the redistribution of land to those who are willing to work it as small farms in the way of the Dachas in Russia. While Colin Tudge does advocate some kind of land reform though by means of purchasing land the road that needs to be traveled is a far more radical way if we truly want to succeed with and have the farmers and farms of the future, the ones that are not agri-industry giants but the ones that truly serve the community, the people, and the nation.

© 2016