A Critique of the 2000 Rural White Paper (New Labour govt)

A Critique of the Rural White Paper

from Chapter 7

In the very short time available between the publication of the Rural White Paper and Chapter 7 News going to press, we wrote a short response that could be described as dismissive (Chapter 7 News No 6 Autumn 2000). Other NGO’s have welcomed the White Paper, at least cautiously, so we have written this critique to explain why we consider the Rural White Paper to be inadequate. The critique is presented in a point-by-point format. All it needs in terms of an introduction is to say that the White Paper resolutely refuses to look at the root problems and the long-term solutions at every opportunity.

Globalization (8.1)

The rural situation can only be properly analysed within the macro-economic context of the globalization of markets. Yet the only reference we can find in the entire White Paper to globalization is on page 89 in reference to farming, where among the “key issues” listed we find this:

“Some pressures common to all sectors of the economy: the problems of competing in an increasingly global and more competitive market.”

It is totally inaccurate to suggest that the pressures of globalization apply equally to all sectors. On the contrary, the global market has progressively lowered the price of primary products, while the price of services which do not compete at an international level remain high (people do not fly to Bombay for a haircut, to consult a lawyer or to go ten-pin bowling). Since primary products come almost exclusively from the countryside, while services tend to be town-based, the countryside suffers disproportionately. Service based-activities that are often more appropriate in an urban setting or that have no need to be cited in the countryside can outbid land-based activities for land, facilities, buildings and dwellings.

The UK Government clearly believes that this process of globalization is inevitable, and indeed appears to support it. It is perhaps entitled to do so as long as it has an electoral mandate. But to discuss the future of the UK countryside without a proper analysis of these forces, without any discussion of the various responses that could be made, and without any reference to measures taken in other countries (such as France, Norway, Switzerland and Japan) to counteract these influences is evidence either of intellectual bankruptcy or else a deliberate attempt to evade the main issue.

Common Agricultural Policy Reform. (8.2)

The section on CAP reform contributes nothing that is not already existing policy. It is stated “Our aim is progressively to move towards a CAP which encourages farmers to be more competitive and responsive to market signals so that they can make a good living while at the same time following practices which conserve and enhance the landscape and wildlife.” Yet it is evident that it is pressure to be competitive that very often leads farmers to manage their land in an unsustainable way and their livestock in an inhumane manner. There appears to be no mention of this fundamental conflict.

Restructuring of Farms

The White Paper states that “There will still be room for large and small farms” (p.89) but also talks of “major restructuring in the industry”. There is no mention of how, if at all, small and family farms are to be protected from pressures for concentration of land-ownership. The 1999 Cabinet Office report Rural Economies went into considerable detail concerning the various options for applying modulation (redirection of subsidies) some of which are more favourable to agricultural employment and small farms than others. There is no mention of this crucial debate in the White Paper.

Farm Diversification

No distinction is made between diversification that is ancillary to and supports the agricultural activity on a farm (eg food processing, retailing, farm-orientated tourism) and other forms that replace agricultural activity (computer consultancy, industrial storage etc). The danger that many forms of diversification could undermine the agricultural basis of the farm and eventually turn the enterprise into (say) an office set in a nice piece of countryside is not even discussed. Nor is the fact that allowing industrial uses in farm buildings will raise the price of such buildings for people who want to use them for the purposes for which they were originally intended. Chapter 7 is not totally opposed to forms of diversification that offer a part-time income to farmers, but to introduce these measures without any discussion of the potential effects is an abdication of common sense.

New Entrants into Agriculture

There is no mention whatsoever in the chapter on farming of new entrants into the industry, as if they didn’t exist. Yet throughout history, when established forms of farming have been in crisis, other newer forms have come in to take their place (see Alternative Agriculture, Joan Thirsk, Oxford, 1999). A report by Lucy Nichol of Oxford Brookes University shows that in 1999 in South Somerset, while 45 buildings and dwellings have moved out of agricultural use, there have been 70 applications for new agricultural buildings and dwellings. Agriculture may be in crisis, but it is not moribund. If new entrants cannot secure agricultural buildings because they are outbid by people putting the buildings to light-industrial or office use, then will have to put in applications for new farm buildings. This would in effect be a form of greenfield development through the back door.

Conservation Subsidies (8.2.5. 9.3.6 and 10.3.9-12)

Chapter 7 agrees that subsidising environmental land management is better than subsidising production, but there are a number of concerns, which are completely ignored in the White Paper. In particular, there is a danger that large landowners will be paid for doing nothing, or virtually nothing to their land, as a bribe to stop them doing something destructive. Conservation subsidies without means-testing will serve to entrench existing land-ownership patterns against market forces, and accentuate class and income differences between landowners and the socially excluded (who are stringently means-tested when they apply for subsidies).

An alternative to conservation subsidies is to outlaw or tax unsustainable land management methods (including produce from abroad) and then let the market dictate the price of land under these conditions. The proposed pesticide tax, dropped by the Labour administration, was one potential component of such a policy. Such an approach is more in line with the professed aim of the White Paper “to move towards a CAP which encourages farmers to be more competitive and responsive to market signals . . . “ (para 8.2.4) than conservation subsidies. The fact that such measures are barely mentioned in the White Paper is testimony to its over-riding intellectual dishonesty. That tariffs and import bans on unsustainably produced imports might contravene WTO rules is no excuse: the Government could be arguing for these rules to be changed rather than siding with the US in these debat es, and the failure to mention any of this in the White Paper is further evidence of its inability to confront any of the root issues.

Climate Change (8.2.7, 9.2.5 and 10.5.1

The sections on climate change seem to accept that climate change is a fait accompli and deal only with the anticipated effects and their mitigation. The assumption is that the UK will become warmer even though a number of scientists have put forward the possibility that a diversion of the Gulf stream could mean that England will become colder – and lets face it, nobody really knows.

There is almost no mention of preventative measures. Chapter 6 on Transport, almost unbelievably, doesn’t mention climate change. The section on Climate Change and Farming (8.2.7) doesn’t mention measures to reduce energy expenditure (for example through more local production, more labour intensive methods, less artificial inputs), even though the food industry is many times more inefficient in terms of the energy input/output ratio than it was 150 years ago.

Affordable Housing

The affordable homes section (Chapter 5) does make some steps in the right direction as regards top-down provision of housing – eg allowing full Council Tax to be applied on second homes (though this is discretionary), vague moves  to release empty properties onto the market and more money for the top-down affordable housing developers.

But there is nothing for informal housing provision through self-help, self-build and temporary housing options. The informal sector includes a wide spectrum of people ranging from farmers’ children, who very often have the land, the expertise and the local contacts to build a house very cheaply, to occupiers of mobile homes, caravans, shacks, benders and trucks. This sector is fairly large –many times larger than that accommodated by the Rural Exceptions Policy for example – and it would be many times larger still if there were one iota of policy anywhere designed to provide opportunities for such people. It is flabbergasting that the affordable homes chapter does not even mention mobile homes, even though it is quite possible that these now supply the main form of accommodation for people seeking work in the land-based industries at minimum wage level.

Nor does the White Paper make any attempt to analyse the root causes of the lack of affordable housing, even though such an analysis hardly involves great intellectual prowess. It is obvious that poor people cannot afford to buy, rent or build in many rural locations because land and property prices are too high; that they are high because of a scarcity of building land; and that this scarcity is caused by the planning system which does not permit residential development anywhere except for a few defined areas. The only proposal so far made to solve this problem, whilst still protecting the countryside, is to allow, in areas where conventional development would not be permitted, various forms of low impact development conforming to stringent criteria which would ensure that there was little or no adverse environmental impact.

Scotland already has a policy providing for low impact development in its planning guidance NPPG15, and the Welsh Assembly has recently commissioned a report on the matter. Policies on low impact development are beginning to appear in draft local plans (eg S. Somerset, Milton Keynes). Yet despite submissions to the White Paper Team and to its sounding board on the subject from Chapter 7 and others, the issue has been resolutely ignored. One doesn’t expect the White Paper to embrace overnight a policy that is, admittedly, fairly radical. But one should expect it to lay the options on the table and discuss the pros and cons in an honest and level-headed manner.

Transport (Chapter 6)

As we have already mentioned, Chapter 6 on Transport, does not refer to climate change. At present the number of households in the world wi thout a car is increasing faster than the number of households with a car. If Britain is to reduce its carbon emissions to levels compatible with equitable world consumption, then the numbers of cars operated in the country, and their mileage, will have to be drastically curtailed.

The White Paper Team seem to be blissfully unaware of this. They do propose a few measures which could be useful means of reducing people’s dependence on cars – for example car share clubs, taxi share systems etc (though no mention we can see of delivery services). But these measures seem to be directed at the one-sixth of rural people who do not have access to a car, rather than the remaining five sixths who need to reduce their car use: “We aim to offer more help to individuals who need the use of a car.”(6.3.1) This reflects the Labour Government’s absurd capitulation to the fuel price protesters without once raising the crucial issue of environmental sustainability, which was why the Tories put the annual tax increase on in the first place.

Rural and Village Services

Similarly, the White Paper does propose some measures to improve rural services (Chapters 3 and 4), but these are all sticking plaster remedies. Once again there is no attempt to analyse the root of the problem, which again is the private car. Had the internal combustion engine been propagated rationally and equitably over the last 70 years, it could have provided better transport links to local towns and better retail and delivery services to local villages. Instead quite the reverse has happened: the bus and train services have been slashed, and 80 per cent of the population drives further and further afield in search of employment, goods, medical attention, education, leisure etc, while the remaining 20 per cent (ie those low income people who have resisted the pressures to move into towns) are left stranded.

It is surely self-evident that if private car use is curtailed then rural services will automatically (or at least with the help of a few carrots) fall back into place. Since there is an urgent need to reduce private car use for environmental reasons, what good reason could there be for not embarking on such a strategy as soon as possible?

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