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5 key insights on rural reform from reviewing 1000 proposals

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  • Picture of Tom MacMillan
    Tom MacMillan
  • Environment

Commissions like this one often follow a familiar formula: analyse the problem, add evidence and discuss, then make recommendations. Yet, for an inquiry into food, farming and the countryside, this approach is fraught with difficulty.

The complexity of these systems defies straightforward analysis. Generating further heated debates about the nature of what’s wrong stifles the imagination of what could be done differently. How many reports and studies are thick with analysis and insight, but thin on truly workable ideas or examples of how to do things better?

The RSA’s Food, Farming & Countryside Commission is approaching the evidence differently. We’re starting with what could be done, not only in action research around the UK, but also in our initial call for ideas. We hope to cut through some of the complexity and controversy by focusing on practical proposals and their potential effects.

Today we are launching a call for your ideas. We don’t want to waste your time on long lists of recommendations you’ve made before, or rehashing what you’re already telling Government. We want to know the key ideas that might get missed because they don’t fit neatly in one department or sector, because they seem too difficult, or because the people they’d benefit don’t have a voice.

To set the scene we’ve reviewed 1,000 proposals from 160 reports, speeches, consultation responses and other documents, all published since 2015. Most (55%) were from the third sector, mainly NGOs and think tanks. The next largest number were from the public sector (29%). There were fewer from the private sector (8%).

We’ve assessed and visualised the 1,000 proposals. Before you explore and suggest your ideas, here are five key insights that we’ve noticed from our review.

 

1. Proposals are mostly in policy silos

The proposals were mostly in silos, focused on single issues rather than linking them up.

Of those with a strong focus on environment, for example, only 1 in 4 also focused strongly on social benefits, and just 1 in 20 on the economy. Fewer than 1 in 10 of proposals with a strong focus on rural services promised even mild environmental benefits. And of the 130 proposals strongly focused on health and wellbeing only 6 had a strong focus on farming and only 3 had a strong focus on rural services, whereas 37 had a strong focus on food.

Yet so many of these issues are clearly connected. Where are the biggest opportunities to cut across these silos, say by improving health through farming, or benefitting nature through rural development beyond the farm gate?

How can we make better connections between policy or organisation silos so that we get multiple and reinforcing benefits - social, economic and environmental. Or indeed, avoid the risk that policy intentions in one sector are undermined by work in another?

 

2. Public money for public goods is a common theme

We found a striking focus from all sectors, but especially Government, on payments for public goods. Despite being one of the most specific categories we used to describe proposals, it accounted for almost 1 in 10 of those from the public sector.

This theme dominates Government’s policy proposals on finance relating to farming and the environment.

When it came to wider rural economy and services, not only were there fewer proposals but the type of financial intervention was different. Instead of public payments for public goods, the focus was on infrastructure.

This makes intuitive sense - public goods like clean water need maintaining while rural broadband takes investment. But this also reflects fashions in different areas of policy, and may miss opportunities. For example, where would investing in farming infrastructure make it cheaper to deliver public goods long term? What about innovative forms of finance like a rural basic income - could such ideas help farming communities’ transition from CAP payments? And can we understand and reposition where public money is already spent (through procurement, for example) to get better outcomes?

How can the principle of public money paying for public goods extend beyond ‘ecosystem services’?

 

3. Wildlife trumps climate change

Among proposals that focused strongly on environmental benefits, the greatest number aimed to protect or promote biodiversity.

Fewer focused on climate change or water management (e.g. flooding, water quality), and under a dozen strongly on energy or renewables. Among proposals on water, very few touched on issues of micropollution. Perhaps surprisingly, NGOs and think tanks were less likely to propose action on climate change than the public sector.

Farming, food and the countryside are bigger influences on wildlife than on emissions. Yet they are still important to climate change and on the sharp end of it. Should there be more focus on the practices that halt and mitigate climate change, or is it getting the attention it needs?

How can we encourage policymakers, businesses and citizens to prioritise systemic and global challenges, as well as what’s currently most visible or popular?

 

4. Calls for action by government are widespread

While our review covered all kinds of proposals, not just policy, 9 in 10 of those we found were for action by the public sector, mostly UK Government.

Many of these proposals fall squarely in remit for Defra, and are within the scope of its current consultation on the Agriculture Bill and the 25 Year Environment Plan. Yet plenty of others require leadership which spans Whitehall departments, and far beyond.

Some proposals with potentially far-reaching consequences for Defra’s agenda are outside its policy-making powers. These include changes to import duty, inheritance tax reforms that could affect land values, social prescribing, investing in rural transport or enabling affordable housing in the countryside. The devolved Governments are grappling with several of these, but others demand action from Westminster.

How does government decide what it can uniquely do? And how can others - businesses, civil society organisations, citizens - discern what they can do independent of government? To the extent such proposals need cross-governmental and UK-wide action, who should lead efforts to test and potentially develop them?

How can we support effective leadership practices that span government departments and agencies, and across public, private organisations and civic society?

 

5. Many proposals are vague about how and where changes will happen

Although many proposals say where responsibility for making change lies, they often seem tragically vague about how. For example, they may talk about “supporting farmers”, “examining potential”, “better integrating policy” or “co-ordinating groups”.

We also found that many of the proposals are for more proposals - in effect, delayed action. These are more common from the public and private sector than from NGOs and think tanks. Proposals for plans or strategies, together with research and calls for collaboration, account for over a quarter of all proposals.

It’s tempting to see this vagueness and delay as a problem, diluting accountability by deferring decisions. Alternatively, we can see it as an opportunity to develop how ideas would actually work hand-in-hand with the people affected.

How can we develop a better awareness of how policy implementation actually happens and how best to harness the energy for change throughout the system?

 

Time to add your voice...

What do you see as the greatest opportunities to make practical changes that could improve the ways we eat and farm, and regenerate our environment and countryside communities? Where are these working already and who is involved? Where are the biggest gaps and risks in current debate, and who is being left out?

Please tell us what you think and where you feel our Commission should focus its effort.

If you want to suggest changes to the assessment we made in our review, you can download the full table of proposals, make your own comments against it, and email your version to us at ffcc@rsa.org.uk

 

Browse our website to learn more

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  • It's probably a slight swerve from the discussion, but one of the things my own research with over 200 global business leaders has thrown up (not literally) is the lack of capacity for creative thinking in leadership.  I think this probably also applies to the agricultural sector too, although I have no research to confirm that.  Creativity - or problem-solving thinking- whatever you like to call it, has been effectively educated out of us by the time we reach the end of University education, and is then often reinforced in the hierarchical business systems we encounter in work. In addition to the many 1000s of proposals to reinvent the food system, I wonder if we also need to consider mindsets and education of a different kind within the agricultural sector too?  One which includes creative thinking, systems thinking, and encourages qualities such as adaptability and learning to operate well with uncertainty. 

  • The food we consume is making us ill. Probably more than half the people in the UK are insulin resistant as a result of eating too much processed food and too much carbohydrate, basically grains. This has happened in the last forty years and has accelerated in the period since the last FFC. So there is a massive problem on a scale not really comprehended by the commission. The scale is beginning to engulf our healthcare system.

    The required to reverse this unmitigated disaster is towards meat and whole foods (not grains). The need for local food not captured by the corporate food industry is exactly the sort of shift that the FFC should be looking at. And changing agriculture to focus on meat production has some particular political challenges. Proper integration of livestock with vegetable production is long overdue and addresses lots of conservation issues: soil, water, pesticides, overuse of nitrogen.

    The official health response to the disaster is only to deny and to stonewall. There appears to be regulatory capture by the pharmaceutical industry and the food industry that prevent the disaster being addressed. That means that the only way people, like myself, have to recover their health is to do their own research and find their own food sources outside the world of supermarkets. There is every evidence that the food industry is fighting the same disinformation war that was fought by the tobacco industry and the oil industry. There have to be questions about the true independence of the FFC, not because we have reason to doubt but because we absolutely know that levers will get pulled to prevent unwanted conclusions.

    • Thanks William - the links between farming, diet and health are a big concern for the Commission, and our launch report (https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/food-farming-and-countryside-commission-prospectus) talked a bit about scale of the effect on people's health.

      Part of the challenge is that the issue is neglected in policy, falling into the cracks between Defra and the Department of Health. It was therefore promising to see Defra launch its consultation on the Agriculture Bill under the headline of 'Health and Harmony' - though, as plenty will have noted in their replies to the consultation, there was little further in the body of the paper about health.

      Yet, as you suggest, and as the proposals we reviewed illustrated, the remedies are also hotly debated. What seems clear is that action to encourage 'healthy farming' will achieve little without changes in food processing and marketing, and unless health is a bigger consideration in agricultural and trade policy, efforts to change processing and marketing may be pushing uphill.

      As for demonstrating independence, one of the key steps any group or initiative can take is to be transparent. As I hope is already becoming clear, we're committed to showing our workings and inviting scrutiny and challenge as we go.

  • I read with interest the 5 insights above, and also the 1,000 proposals (well, their titles ).

    The key point I wish to make is that in order to have a coherent response to such a complex issue it is helpful to start with a vision of a better future. This vision will be formed by what one considers are the most important issues and priorities for our food systems.

    Rather than comment at length, I commend to your attention the Food Vision and Action Plan, and the Food Logic Model developed by Sustaining Dunbar, a Scottish Community Development Trust based on a Transition Town initiative. See https://ourlocality.org/2025/2025-local-resilience-action-plan/

    This local approach, rooted in a wide-ranging consultation, has produced a vision and proposals that are in contrast to your first 3 points, being part of a holistic vision for the area, bringing together producers and consumers of food, and being based on the fundamental need to address drivers of (and resilience to) climate change. As well as producing plans, Sustaining Dunbar has also carried out a vaiety of projects such as setting up a Community Bakery, Community Chicken Coop and Community Garden

    I hope I have said enough to pique your interest to consult these documents. At present I do not have time to fill in the consultation questionnaire, but hope your UK wide tourers might consult these documents when they have a few spare minutes in Lothian and Borders next week.

    • Thanks Tim - grateful to you for pointing me to the Dunbar vision and plan - an inspiring example. Other places have done similar, including many of those involved in the Sustainable Food Cities network (http://sustainablefoodcities.org/).

      Reading through the 1,000 proposals, I was struck that it was those from place-based initiatives like these that most commonly bucked the trend by being 'joined up' - linking issues like health and farming, food and housing.

      That said, place-based approaches also face challenges. One respect where I think they often struggle is in engaging a critical mass of farmers and other land managers in an area.

      There's also the question of what to make of this when you're sitting in Defra or some other Government department, making national policy? You can devolve or localise - the review found a fair few proposals for funds or other powers to granted to community or catchment scale groups. But that  brings its own challenges when it comes to issues that spill beyond those local boundaries. For example, devolving powers to catchment scale groups might work better for biodiversity or water quality, than for achieving the scale of action needed to make a dent in agriculture's contribution to climate change.

      It is with the potential you highlight in mind that the Commission is working directly with communities in three locally-led inquiries (https://www.thersa.org/action-and-research/rsa-projects/public-services-and-communities-folder/food-farming-and-countryside-commission/deep-dives-in-cumbria-devon-and-lincolnshire) - anyone reading this in Cumbria, Devon or Lincolnshire, where they'll take place, please get in touch.

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