When we launched the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission in November 2017, a few people were sceptical. “Brexit will be all over by the time you publish your findings”, they said. “And, anyway, do people really care about these complicated issues?”
Well, the first is palpably not the case. There is a lot still to do to decide together what kind of country we want to be and what this means for our food, where it comes from and the countryside we share.
Secondly, people do care – and about a wide range of issues, including the beauty of our countryside – but they feel disconnected from policy and they desperately want to be involved in the issues and the decisions that affect them. Our team has travelled the length and breadth of the country, from Sheppey to Shetland, Cromer to Cardigan, Armagh to St Austell, meeting and talking to people about what matters to them. I’m grateful that they have been welcomed, without exception, wherever they’ve been.
We’ve heard that so many of the debates that excite policymakers in Whitehall and Westminster leave people cold in rural communities and businesses. Policies developed in departmental silos in Whitehall make no sense on the ground – and often actively conspire against each other. We’ve seen what happens in rural communities when schools close, when health services ‘consolidate’, when employers move away and when the broadband doesn’t work. When buses stop running; when the commuter belt creeps further out of cities, and rural housing becomes unaffordable for local people; or when second home owners outnumber locals. People care very much about all these issues and want to be involved in shaping an alternative.
But people are also clear that silver bullet solutions from London won’t be the answer. Lincolnshire requires something very different from Lancashire, not to mention the aspirations of the devolved nations to fashion their own futures on these matters. This is why we’ve spent more time in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in three iconic counties of England, to understand more about what locally designed futures could look like.
People tell us that they care about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how it affects their health and wellbeing. They believe the government should do its job, making sure that what they can buy really is safe and healthy for people, compassionate for animals, and sustainable for soils and biodiversity.
Second, they challenge the idea that ‘food poverty’ is best addressed by making food cheaper. Poverty is poverty. In rural areas, the cost of living can be up to 30 percent higher than in towns.If people can’t afford basic goods and services – food, housing, heating, transport – then the answer must be in getting a better balance between the price of goods, the provisions of services and basic incomes.
Farmers and growers tell us that they want to do what is necessary to meet the nation’s needs. They are prepared to make changes but with the same support that any essential industry facing major change would expect from government. They want to be able to make a fair and just living from their work, like anyone else. They also remind us that big global challenges are at least as serious as Brexit – climate change, migration and global conflicts are already having significant impacts. These longer-term challenges must be kept centre stage if we are going to help the UK be fit to face the future.
In this progress report, we haven’t tried to cover everything, but are publishing our first ideas for further inquiry and our calls to collective action, which we believe provide practical and radical ways to help tackle these issues. We welcome your views, challenge and advice. Please join in.