Sometimes I go to an event and by the end I’ve decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. And sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Last week’s meeting held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to discuss implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) from 2015 was the latter.
I am not very knowledgeable about CAP, I know it’s a vast subject and I don’t pretend to have got my head around it. About £20 billion of public money is involved for the UK, about £2 billion of that being for pillar 2 (rural development); it is therefore crucial that we get public benefit from it.
I have two particular concerns and I struck lucky because I was able to put them both directly to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson.
Mr Paterson came later than he intended; he had a slot on the programme but by the time he reached us we had finished the formal session and were eating the buffet lunch. He said a few words and I noted in particular that he said that payments under pillar 2 should provide ‘long-term public benefit’. He then invited comments.
So I gave him mine.
1 The government will need accurate base maps for CAP payments but at the moment the maps of common land contain inaccuracies because the registers are out of date. The government must implement part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 throughout England without delay, to enable the registers to be brought up to date. This will benefit landowners, commoners and the public and ensure that the costly mapping-work isn’t wasted. Currently part 1 of the Commons Act is only functioning in seven English commons registration authorities. Julia Aglionby from the Foundation for Common Land was also there and she and I had been arguing for this during the earlier meeting.
Permanent public access
2 Any payments for access under pillar 2 must buy permanent not permissive access. Until the cuts in the 2010 spending review, the government funded permissive access in the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme. Thereafter there were no payments for access so any new schemes, or schemes which were renewed after that, have no access. The result is dreary signs saying that access has been withdrawn, and walkers, riders and cyclists who are thwarted.
Public access to important sites such as the iron-age hillfort, Segsbury Camp (or Letcombe Castle) in Oxfordshire was provided under agri-environment schemes but is no longer funded. Fortunately the owner of Segsbury Camp still allows access there.
It is an extremely popular, ancient site, right on the Ridgeway National Trail.
But some of the stiles have been blocked up and it seems that the access could easily be withdrawn at any time.
So I urged the Secretary of State to ensure that the public money spent on CAP should, as he had said, provide long-term public benefit for public access—and that can only be so if the access is permanent.
I was echoing a letter which a cohort of access organisations—the British Horse Society, British Mountaineering Council, Open Spaces Society and Ramblers—sent to environment minister Richard Benyon in March this year setting out the arguments. The authors praised Natural England’s Paths For Communities which does fund new, permanent public access. This principle needs to be extended to all agri-environment schemes.
So the Secretary of State has heard the arguments. I shall follow up in writing and hope something good comes of it.