Exploring Environmental Policy: Improving how we manage and incentivise land management

5 September 2019


Reported by Bekki Parrish, NERC-funded Policy Intern (May - July 2019) and Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

Last year, Theresa May launched the government’s 25 year plan for the environment, which included outline proposals for a new system of environmental land management, nature recovery networks, and a new principle of environmental net gain.
While containing ambitious rhetoric, the real test of the plan will be the degree to which it results in positive changes on the ground. To do this, local actors must be engaged and empowered, local delivery mechanisms effective, and the different elements spatially coherent.

Following a series of workshops with Defra, CSaP convened a panel at our annual conference to discuss some of these issues.

One of the panellists, Professor Bhaskar Vira from the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, said that it was “an unusually interesting time to be working in land management and environmental policy”. He explained that Brexit planning had created "a particular policy window where something had to be done". He called for open, innovative, and creative thinking, as policy makers envisage the future of UK land management, agriculture and the domestic food market.

The role of government in administering land management policy had initially been designed to "efficiently and elegantly" foster long term stability, according to Henry Dieudonné-Demaria, Lead for the Climate Strategy at Defra. This system is currently under considerable stress, as policy architecture is now developed in a cross departmental way, and government is facing challenges of capacity and coordination as they seek to get the right people and evidence to refine the UK’s environmental policy paradigm.

Certain groups will be particularly vulnerable throughout this period of transition. Professor Vira highlighted that households spend on average 10% of their budget on food, and that the impact of food price changes will be particularly felt by the poor. Mr Dieudonné-Demaria pointed out that meanwhile, many of those working in agriculture were currently “on the brink” and could be pushed out of business if policy makers didn’t get this right.

This sentiment was echoed by Rohit Kaushish from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) of England and Wales, who highlighted that farmers’ circumstances were precarious. This vulnerability was driven by significant year-to-year profit fluctuations – with profits moving 40% year on year for dairy farmers between 2010 and 2016, weak bargaining power, and reliance upon incentives schemes such as direct government payments which were designed to be short term. He noted that more than half of farmers made less than £20,000 income in 2015/16, and that 16% of farmers were already experiencing financial losses. The percentage of farmers taking financial losses would increase to 42% without direct payments from the government – payments which are currently being phased out.

Looking to the future, Mr Kaushish emphasised that Brexit-induced reforms must be used as an opportunity to drive change by using granular data and investing longer term incentives with the aim of improving resilience, productivity, and sustainability for those working in the agricultural sector.

Navigating political uncertainty will require flexible policymaking according to Mr Dieudonné-Demaria. This presented a chance to integrate agricultural and land policy reform with broader reforms in health, housing and transport, while remaining responsive to the challenges of an aging population and a workforce where 33% of farmers are over 65. Throughout this process, policy makers would have to remain mindful that the decisions we make on the land will have positive and negative externalities, explained Professor Vira, with impacts across felt our environment and society.

Photo credit: Susan Elizabeth, 2015

  • 26 June 2019, 9:30am

    CSaP Annual Conference 2019

    CSaP's Annual Conference will bring together members of our network from government, academia and elsewhere to discuss some of the policy challenges we have worked on over the past year.