WEEKEND WEB: All change for the country in six years’ time

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TIM MACHIN offers rare praise for the Environment Secretary in this week’s RURAL MATTERS...

At the risk of sounding like a fan, I am for the third time recently in this column going to give a mention to Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

For all of us who live in or visit the countryside, the big Brexit question is ‘what will the countryside look like post Brexit? How will our enjoyment of the countryside be affected by changes to the subsidy arrangements?

Farmers, understandably, have more specific concerns.

The current system of EU subsidies, worth £3billion a year to British farmers, pays out depending on the amount of land owned rather than how it is used.

That is seen as perverse, as it does little to encourage quality, sustainability or efficiency.

Mr Gove announced recently that this system would continue until 2024, to give reassurance to farmers, but would then change to a new subsidy system that would reward farmers for improving the environment, opening up the countryside to the public, planting woodlands, turning fields into meadows, providing new habitats and so on.

The countryside as we know it is largely the result of the activity of the farming community working within the Common Agricultural Policy, so any change to the current regime is likely to have significant long-term effects on its appearance, diversity and use, and from the point of view of both visitors and residents, possibly for the better. 

The Government’s mantra is that they are committed to leave the environment in a better condition than they found it. Their rapid action on plastics waste following the exposé in Attenborough’s Blue Planet II gives some cause for optimism that their environmental awareness will carry forward into agricultural policy.

It’s remarkable how much of the UK we’re talking about when we refer to ‘the countryside’. I have lived in towns, big cities and the countryside in four counties over the past 65 years and I was looking at a set of graphics on the BBC website last week that showed how much land is actually built on, exploding the myth that the country is heavily developed.

South Holland, as you might expect, is one of the least developed areas of the country. Only 3 per cent of the district is built on, half the national average, with 94 per cent of the land farmed compared with 57 per cent nationally.

I lived in Leicester for 24 years and was surprised to see that even that densely packed city has only 68 per cent of its land area built on, 10 per cent is farmland within the city boundaries and a fifth of the land area is urban green space (e.g. parks and other public open space).

Overall in Britain, according to this analysis, just under six per cent of all land is built on, nearly 57 per cent is farmland, 35 per cent is natural (moors, heathland, natural grassland etc) and urban green space is just under 4 per cent.  Let’s work towards keeping it looking its best.