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As I biked through the Sussex countryside, between meetings with landowners, farmers and community organisations, my thoughts kept returning to the concept of stewardship: the job of taking care of something.

As Professor Tim Jackson said at the recent launch of the Food Farming and Countryside Commission’s progress report: ‘Economics is not the only thing that matters in understanding the relationship between food, farming and countryside’. There are values and ethics which drive us but which this system cannot capture. If this muddle of Brexit is anything to go by, we need to get significantly better at having conversations which grapple with these difficult questions and trade-offs.  

My conversations in East and West Sussex led me to reflect, not only on the stewardship of our natural resources, but also on the job of taking care of the social ecosystems in our countryside. Whether you call it social capital or community spirit, these are relationships on which local economies rise and fall, and which require investment and nurturing as much as the natural resources.  

Building thriving and sustainable businesses 

Nestled in a valley just outside the village of Duncton is the Estate office for the Barlavington Estate. Dropping from the busy A-road above I cycled down the steep track towards the house and cluster of farm buildings. 

I was there to meet the owner of the estate, who is the second generation to manage the land, having taken over from his father. He initially had little interest in taking on a role in the estate, however after the storm of 1987 destroyed many of its trees, he began working on the forestry there, and saw the opportunities for piloting and demonstrating sustainable farming practices.  

The question of how to run a profitable rural business whilst looking after the environment is a challenge that has kept him busy for 30 years. His own commitment to environmental stewardship is evident. His involved in myriad other initiatives in the area, including being on the board of the National Park and being a founder of the Arun and Rother Rivers’ Trust.  

We get too hung up, he told me, on differences and distinctions between issues. If we take a step back we see that these are all part of one picture, one whole. However, when it comes to moving payments to delivering public goods he wonders how we are to decide what those are, and which take priority, at a detailed level. Land managers regularly take decisions which privilege one outcome over another. Most importantly, he reflected, who is to decide what public value is and how are those people to be given the information to help them decide. Looking after something for everyone’s interests is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. 

The Arun and Rother Rivers Trust is an example of an organisation which strengthening the ability of stewards, in this case farmers and water authorities, to work together on tackling environmental problems. Part of a national network of river trusts, such networks take time and commitment to get off the found but have significant potential for achieving local change.  

Under-investment in community infrastructure 

It’s not hard to see what draws people Sussex; the landscape is beautiful, and it is close to both London and the coast. Not surprising then that a key topic of conversation at a meeting convened by the Partridge Green WI should be housing and infrastructure. Property prices in the area are high and young people or those on lower incomes struggle to find accommodation.  

New housing is a priority for the local authorities, and the need for development is recognised. But locals are concerned that developers are building houses without the infrastructure needed to turn these into strong communities. Instead we heard about ever more congested roads, a lack of investment in public transport, lack of parking in developments, lack of doctors, school places, community centres – all those things which are desperately needed to allow people and communities to come together.  

Building assets for the future 

Action in Rural Sussex are a community organisation with over 25 years of experience. They provide multiple services, but I was particularly interested in learning about the Sussex Community Housing Hub, which provides help with the setting-up of Community Land Trusts, and the building of community-led housing initiatives. Such schemes are designed to support communities to provide affordable, local accommodation in an area with high housing prices 

With the support that the Community Housing Hub offers around 23 communities in East and West Sussex are taking this step, and the first scheme has just received planning consent.  

Living land 

Later that day, at the foot of the south downs outside Lewes, a farmer and his family welcomed me into their kitchen. His main business is dairy, with some cereals and some sheep on the downs. He is the fourth generation in his family to be the tenant on this land, which itself crosses the boundaries of two long-established estates, giving him a strong connection with the land and local area. 

Housing is a challenge he is seeing his young trainee grapple with. Unable to afford to move nearby, the options are for him to remain at home or for the farm to try and provide a caravan on site for him.  

He would like to see small developments take place across the area, and not only large centralised developments. This, he feels, would allow communities to grow more naturally, support local workers and help prevent some areas becoming living museums.  

He, himself, is proactive about change and explains that there will be opportunities coming up for those who are willing and able to spot them. But he recognises that other farms’ business model are not so clear in a post-CAP era. He is concerned that land owners may put more pressure on tenants whose land fares well under new payment schemes, to balance less well performing land. He also fears that there may be a further loss of farm housing if, in a post-CAP setting, there is a turnover of farm businesses and the temptation to sell off attractive farm properties proves too strong. 

Good dialogue 

One land manager told me ‘the work of a land manager is uniquely visible to the public, and yet no one understands what we are doing’. This is also true of the social ecosystems which underpin the lives of our communities and economies. There are myriad small relationships, people in their communities who glue things together, institutions who bring people together. To look at the density and fertility of these networks is to see our world in a very different light.  

At our meeting with residents in Partridge Green I was struck by the constructive nature of the discussion and their willingness to listen, learn and respectfully challenge one another. It was a far better discussion than many I’ve been a part of in this job. We need to see more local conversations (and national conversations) like this. Because the resources these networks unlock can be hidden in plain sight, everywhere from market squares to school gates to allotments. We should nurture and cherish them, because significant change is ahead and we all have roles as stewards. 

Thanks to everyone I met and who generously gave me their time, insights and cups of tea. 

 

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