Before the Call for Ideas, we reviewed over 1,000 existing policies and assessed them to highlight the patterns and gaps they revealed. The idea for the Call was to offer an opportunity for people to tell us of radical and practical ideas that we might have missed or misunderstood during the 1000 policy review process. Despite the relatively short timeframe for replying, the responses are – almost without exception – detailed and insightful.
Half of the people who replied were either NGOs and think tanks, or farmers, food growers or land managers. The remaining half were academics and researchers, businesses, community groups, industry associations or individuals, including a response from a local authority (Norfolk County Council).
At first glance, there were many similarities with the ideas in the 1000 policy review. Again, proposals were mostly in policy silos: planners proposed planning reform; environmental organisations proposed environmental policies. Again there were many calls for some form of ‘public money for public goods’, a recurrent theme in food and farming policy discussions. Again, there were few proposals that dealt with climate change. A handful of organisations mentioned the need for either a carbon tax or something along the lines of France’s 4 per 1000 proposal to increase soil organic carbon, but only one organization highlighted the need for ‘climate change proofing’ proposals. And again, some ideas were vague about how and where change would happen and who would carry out the changes.
But despite all this, the sheer breadth of policy interventions is astonishing; and the breadth also yielded depth, with plenty of thinking outside the box.
The main themes
1. Government legislation: plans, bills, or policies that would address a broad range of interrelated problems. Proposals included: Sustainable Food Strategy, Good Food Nation Bill, National Food Policy, Land Use Policy, and Integrated policy framework. This suggests a strong desire to deal with the problem of siloed policy thinking, as well as recognition of how important government intervention is in this arena.
2. Forestry and agroforestry: Ideas ranged from community forest gardening in new developments, to proposals for more forestry – with the benefits that brings of carbon sequestration and timber – and agroforestry in particular.This theme also provided the shortest idea of all: “Defra to employ some foresters”.
3. Advice and education: Improving farm advisory services came up a lot as a way to help farmers manage changes ahead, successfully implement environmental incentives, and pool skills and resources. There was also support for facilitated farmer-led initiatives as a way of promoting innovation and spreading best practice between farms, and, looking beyond the UK, there mention of expanding technical co-operation between countries.
Education also came up frequently, as it had done in the 1000 policy review. Many of these ideas were in the form of simple (though important) ‘teach children about good food and cooking’ proposals, but overall covered a wide territory: education for the wider public and consumers, cookery classes, improving home eating, qualifications and general education on food and farming in schools.
4. Planning: Many submissions mentioned the need for changes to planning, either to support entrant farmers, protect agricultural and forested land from development and speculation, or support the creation of affordable rural housing (and thereby encourage people to live and work in rural areas). Several contributors outlined in detail some of the problems with affordable housing and offered a number of solutions including:
Government should facilitate affordable, self-build and low impact housing on the edge of rural settlements and support should be given for those who want to build homes on farms for workers or owners. Other government actions should include single plot exception sites for affordable self-build homes as national policy and low impact and 'one planet development' policies.
5. The price of food: This came up several times and is clearly a complex issue. Some suggested that if food prices rise, lower income families could be supported to pay for food.Others emphasized the importance of maintaining food affordability. Given the complexity of the ‘price of food’ issue, and uncertainties about how food prices will be controlled in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit (import tariffs will increase food prices etc.), this is a policy area with no obvious easy wins.
6. Subsidies: Specific proposals were also made about different ways of redirecting subsidies (separately from the ‘public money for public goods’ theme). Most of these were about providing better support for smaller scale farmers:
All subsidies are removed from farms of more than 750 acres and that they are a) redistributed amongst smaller farms and b) used to support succession planning as modelled in other countries in Europe.
7. Supply chain:These ideas related to improving transparency, addressing monopolies, extending the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and encouraging local sourcing and procurement and shorter supply chains, as well as associated issues of investing in food storage and processing facilities which could help shorten supply chains.
Thinking outside the box
Just as the commissioners guiding this process have sought to think outside the box, many of the contributors mentioned the importance of moving beyond siloed thinking. As one person put it:
“We need to break apart the silo mentality that exists at all levels of local, regional and national oversight, government. It has existed for years and is clogging the arteries of our communities, killing growth and stunting development of ideas and innovation.”
This illustrates why critical system thinking matters. The call offered the opportunity for both contributors and the commission to think afresh about ways of getting outside the box.
Many of the most interesting ideas sit within one of the five themes that have already been identified by the commission: aligning the whole resource, future of land use, future of work, our place in the world, and food, farming and health.
One example, which relates to the ‘Land’ theme, highlights how even a simple idea can have profound implications:
Repeal s.55(2)(e) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 so that 'agriculture' and 'forestry' would be land uses that amount to 'development.
If this happened, planning permission would then be required for land transitioning to and from different agricultural and forestry uses. The law could then privilege beneficial practices and control potentially damaging ones.
Other ideas related to finance in some way, and therefore fit within our ‘Aligning the whole resource’ theme:
A publicly owned Agricultural Development Bank should be created with powers and financial resources to purchase land for conservation farming purposes or for adding to nature reserves.
Creating a Citizens Eco-Fund - a hybrid 'sovereign wealth fund' and 'building society' that specifically invests in progressive environmental projects by farmers and other land owners.
Both of these ideas are about shifting finance towards projects that benefit the natural environment, rural areas, and the ‘commons’.
Other ideas related to conservation and land ownership – a land theme again:
Create a new network (like a spider’s web) of interconnecting corridors which join up the 'islands' of the highest quality nature conservation sites and put this network into public ownership in perpetuity. Manage this network for biodiversity outcomes. Where appropriate combine this network with key public access connections.
A new permanent Farmland Forest, using 5% of farmland, should be established to strengthen biodiversity, improve hedgerows, manage water, enrich farm animal environments, improve animal health outcomes, and enhance beauty.
A proportion of farming land right across the UK needs to be 'freed' up and moved into community ownership by way of Community Land Trusts. Perhaps the money that central government sometimes throw at our broken mainstream housing market ad-hoc could be better used by buying this proportion from landowners and handing it over to the people.
There was a call for the government to begin monitoring natural capital, partly to make the idea of natural capital loss or improvement more widespread. This idea fits under the broad umbrella of the ‘Food and farming: health and wellbeing’ theme:
Government should publish a national balance sheet under direction of Natural Capital Committee, showing decline in natural resources and financial implications of externalised costs. The aim would be to accustom people to think in terms of taking into account biodiversity losses, decline in soil fertility, health effects of food etc.
Finally, several ideas highlighted the importance of co-operation, whether for co-ordinating work across sectors or collaborating to share knowledge and skills. This fits under the ‘Future of work’ theme:
Inter-agency co-operation for the re-skilling across sectors from the unemployed, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, Young People not in Education, Employment or Training, probation services for ex-offenders, and occupational therapy approaches for the rehabilitation of mentally and physically disabled.
Recognition of the role and potential of farmer and community co-operatives in relation to food, farming and the wider rural economy, as well as the use of co-operative structures for knowledge sharing, research and development.
What happens next?
While part of the commission process is about thinking outside the box, there are plenty of ideas ‘inside the box’ – from the old but still relevant to the new but not properly enforced – which need to be highlighted, reframed, and put to good use.
The Call for Ideas was just one of several other commission processes (together with the bike tour, roundtable discussions, locally-led enquiries, and devolved nation enquiries) aimed at distilling the ideas that matter to people. It is through this process we can identify those options which can make the changes required to create a safe, secure and inclusive food and farming system with a flourishing and sustainable rural economy.