The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was an expensive, unfair, 40-year-long environmental and social disaster. By 2016, £3 billion of taxpayers’ money went into UK landowners’ pockets every year; some repaid us by polluting our food and water, and annihilating our wildlife. Surely we would do better on our own, with a policy tailored to our own needs, free from the shackles of Brussels?
Few would contest the logic of Michael Gove’s “public money for public goods” (the idea behind the Agriculture Act 2020, proposing to pay farmers for environmental benefits). But over five years post-Brexit, all that has emerged from Defra are vague statements of intent.
Crucially, we are no closer to an agreed method of measuring those “public goods”; what is the monetary value of a kg of carbon, a bee or an earthworm? While the Public Accounts Committee last week condemned Defra’s policy (or lack of it) as “blind optimism”, farmers quietly wait.
Competence is boring; it rarely receives the recognition it deserves. Instead, we lurch from headline to headline in a stream of rhetoric. “Taking back control”; “getting Brexit done”; “public money for public goods”; all emotionally engaging, but in practical terms useless.
Good governance takes rigorous research, attention to detail, impartial analysis, and competent implementation; a good slogan may well help people accept new policies, but is no substitute for the unseen hard work. Neither will the answers be found in a neoliberal marketplace for trading carbon credits or biodiversity offsets, which some hope will plug the funding gap for farmers.
Even the most dogmatic market fundamentalists would acknowledge that such markets require clear definition and governance to work; something we are no closer to now than in 2016. Several like-minded but commercially constrained farmers have recently told me that they are actually delaying tree-planting due to fears that they will either miss out on the yet-to-be-defined Defra funding (historically, Defra only pays for what it can claim its funding initiated), or will not be able to sell carbon credits for projects already started (for carbon reductions to be saleable, they must be “above business as usual”).
The unintended consequence of such incompetent governance is currently to delay the “public goods” that are widely called for, and that our farmers, food, economy and planet urgently need.