By Peter Bridgewater (University of Canberra), Associate Editor for People and Nature.

In People and Nature, Paul Hurley et al. have a nice paper on stakeholder engagement in the English Agri-environmental sector – featuring those “hard to reach” stakeholders!

Written and supported from funds to assist post-Brexit governance in the Agri-environment sector, Hurley et al. deliver an informative read (with some excellent graphics and a photograph that sums it up perfectly!), and offer real quotes and feelings on a crucial issue: how inclusivity can be reached in policy co-design, and then implementation. The focus was on one aspect of the post-Brexit bluster – that somehow, miraculously, without an overbearing Brussels bureaucracy everything will be so much easier, more efficient, and deliver an “enhanced” environment (numerous Defra ministerial quotes from the Gove era and more recently), as well as more and better food produce.

Defra is a strange beast; a UK department, but when you squint you see it’s a department dealing largely with England, as much of its policy and implementation areas are devolved matters for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. And so, Hurley et al. present the results of an English study, although I suspect not dissimilar results could be found in the other “home nations”. 

Defra is based in Nobel House in London’s Smith Square, a stone throw from parliament; Hurley et al’s. paper will hardly make comfortable reading around Smith Square! Just one comment from their interviews will suffice: “As noted in the interviews, it is important to ‘acknowledge that farmers may have a longer institutional memory of Agricultural Environment Schemes than many Defra staff’”.  This is a general issue for Defra and other government departments where staff seem to be in revolving doors, rarely staying in one designated policy area for long. (Of course, they have mostly not had fixed desk spaces for many years, but I digress….).

After the 2016 Brexit vote, Defra published a consultation paper which, in part, called for more rational and sustainable agricultural policy that supports food production alongside “environmental enhancement”, leading to a healthier human society, i.e., how to reach sustainable farming.  So far, so good. The outcome from the consultation was yet a further “discussion paper” in 2020 on a new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.

This discussion paper tells us that the scheme is to be the “biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century”, requiring farmers to manage their land in environmentally-friendly ways and deliver environmental “public goods” (ie. ecosystem services) like clean air, clean water, improved biodiversity, healthier soils, better natural hazard management (e.g., floods), greater public access to nature, and enhanced cultural heritage. Wow!! And they formerly just had to produce food… As an aside, I remain unsure how you “enhance environments” and “improve biodiversity”, but it’s the phrasing of the moment.

Here is where the Hurley et al. paper gets its teeth stuck into the issues, pointing to a need for inclusivity in seeking ways to engage farmers who have “traditionally been ‘harder to reach’ for the government and may be at risk of being ‘left behind’ in the transition to ELM.”  And here is the nub – The Defra ELM discussion paper suggests the Department aims to “To support the launch of this document, (by) holding several interactive webinars with land managers and other stakeholders to discuss the proposals we have outlined (see next steps section). This will not be the end of our engagement; we intend to continue to work closely with our stakeholders through the Tests and Trials Programme, the National Pilot and full ELM delivery, to make sure that this is a scheme that works for farmers, foresters, and other land managers on the ground” (Page 5, bold my emphasis). And here is where London arrogance neatly takes over from Brussels! As Hurley et al. report, “one farmer support network representative noted, two thirds of their members ‘haven’t got the skills or the confidence to do stuff online’ even if they had the technology….” (Bold my emphasis).

So, lack of appropriate digital infrastructure, let alone skills to operate computers, tablets, etc., or even a budget to invest in the infrastructure needed for “webinars”, is key. The paper laments a little that the personal interaction has all but disappeared – yes of course COVID provided exceptional circumstances, but that personal contact from advisers that has atrophied over years was crucial to maintain networks and social contact. And social contact in rural areas is not satisfied simply by Instagram images, Tik-Tok dancing, or even a webinar.

Hurley et al. conclude that “Without the contribution of a wide range of stakeholders to the development of new agri-environment policies – be it in England with the co-design of ELM or in the European Union’s multi-actor approach to CAP reform or elsewhere – it is less likely that agricultural transitions will be inclusive and supported by enough land managers to achieve their desired environmental and social objectives.” 

One is left feeling a little sad at where we are now – the Brexit freedoms don’t seem that free, even with a blue passport. And the English countryside, let alone British landscape, does not seem in for “enhancement” just yet.