Why post-Brexit agricultural policy is as important for you and your child as it is for farmers
Speaking earlier this year at the Oxford Farming Conference, Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs Michael Gove said: “I believe we should help landowners and managers to make the transition from our current system of subsidy to a new approach of public money for public goods over time".
For Cycling UK, "public goods" is a key phrase. In the context of farming, this means incentivising landowners and managers with subsidies to improve public access to green spaces - to encourage them to invite people to Get on their land! on bikes, in other words. Subsidies, in fact, were one of the measures we highlighted in our recent vision for rural cycling, Beyond the Green Belt.
So, with your help, we want to make the most of the Government's recently announced consultation on the future of agricultural policy, 'Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit', a document setting out its future aspirations for a new system for farming subsidies, post-Brexit. Success is certain to contribute to a healthier nation and environment and, especially, benefit children and young people.
Why should subsidy be spent on supporting landowners to improve access?
A prime and iconic example of investing public money in public benefit is the English Coastal Path, a project that saw landowners compensated for allowing access through their land. This is exactly the sort of environment that almost everyone loves, especially families and children.
Also, in a bid to explore the benefits of connecting people with the natural environment, a number of pilot schemes have been funded to improve access to green spaces across the UK, all of which have seen positive, well-documented results.
Interestingly, though, as far as the general public is concerned, the biggest barrier to getting out into the countryside to have fun is transport! Yet Cycling UK’s ‘Rides of Way’ survey found that two thirds of our respondents cycle from their front door for outings on rights of way, suggesting that transport is not the major barrier for cyclists in particular, and that cycling is a good way of reaching the countryside in the first place (although, of course, this does need local authorities to think about making the road network on the way there cycle-friendly too - another point we make in Beyond the Green Belt).
What does cause problems, however, is negotiating the rights of way network itself: 74% of our respondents told us that the current rights of way network is unsuitable for modern day use. If this is a problem for the regular off-roaders who were the largest group of people who filled in our survey, it goes without saying that it's an even bigger problem for more occasional visitors, including those with children.
The solution is to use farming subsidies to reward landowners for maintaining, improving and promoting rights of way, and creating multi-user routes to connect to the wider network of paths. This move would be one of the best ways of lifting the barriers to the great outdoors for people of all ages and abilities.
It's important to note, however, that the Government's consultation is not a channel for pushing forward an 'access all areas' agenda. Consequently, we are calling for the strategic use of subsidies, guided by criteria and cross-compliance (a mechanism that links direct payments to compliance by farmers), to make sure that they deliver maximum public benefit.
Other organisations, including Ramblers, British Horse Society, Open Spaces Society and BMC (British Mountaineering Council) are also calling on the public to support a new system that provides landowners with the means to improve access to the countryside, so that our natural environment is collectively managed and preserved for everyone's enjoyment.
Why access means more than just access
Access isn’t just about the physical ability to participate in an activity on land; it’s about the opportunities it presents; and it’s about the bigger picture.
Strong evidence shows that environmental stewardship and responsible behaviour in the countryside is a by-product of engagement with nature. A study (Palmer & Suggate, 1996) examined significant influences in people’s lives which had led to their increased awareness and concern for the environment. It found that, within the UK, the most significant factor was childhood experience of the natural world. Even Ofsted has said: "Learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development".
Wouldn't it be great, then, if we could all gain from access improvements to the countryside whist rewarding the landowner for providing a safe and maintained route through their land?
This is a point which Michael Gove reinforced in his speech. He said: “Public access I know can be contentious, but the more the public, and especially schoolchildren, get to visit, understand and appreciate our countryside, the more I believe they will appreciate, support and champion our farmers. There are great initiatives which help reconnect urban dwellers with the earth. And they also help secure consent for investment in the countryside as well as support for British produce. So public access is a public good.”
And this is not the only positive to take away. Evidence also points to a boost for rural economies, while people who spend time outside in the environment experience mental health benefits too.
Kuo & Taylor (2001) found that the symptoms of disorders such as ADHD were reduced when young people had access to outdoor environments, whilst Pretty et al. (2005) showed that outdoor experiences could aid recovery from stress and anxiety, plus protecting from future conditions. Cycling UK’s survey on off road cycling habits corroborates this, with 91% of our respondents saying off-road cycling was 'fairly' or 'very important' for their mental health.
So why is now the time to act?
With so many other stories capturing the headlines, getting heard over the noise is often hard. But keeping public access to green spaces high on the political agenda is vital, and influencing the Agricultural Bill is a superb opportunity to make a difference.
Only legislative change that gives public benefit for public subsidy can realise the huge benefits of giving more people access to rights of way on a national scale. This is our chance to help shape the way public money is spent on helping us connect to our natural environment, and get there safely and easily on motor traffic-free rural routes.
Don’t miss this opportunity to support public good for public subsidy. Please sign our online Get on my land! action today, so that everyone can enjoy access to the countryside from their doorstep for years to come!