9 January 2007

Reclaiming the land

David Miliband, the cabinet minister responsible for farming and the environment, was in Oxford last week, telling a group of no-doubt sceptical farmers how to do their job. David Cameron was also there with much the same objective. In reality of course the farmers were just window-dressing, the countryside they rape to garner subsidy payments a tasteful backdrop for the display of more green clothing that is really just protective coloration. Because politicians have been very, very wrong on the environment for a long time, and they are only just waking up to the major changes that are needed.

Shall we start with some basic questions and see how either of these two posturing politicians might answer them?

Let's start with, what is land for? It has traditionally been a respository of the inequitable share of the national value owned by the rich. Once, perhaps, Miliband's father might have argued that it should be a commonwealth, a common treasury for all. But such quaint notions have been swept away in an era when fine agricultural land is turned into paddocks for those who acquire their wealth in distant cities and have to buy machines to exercise the horses they don't have time to ride.

And who has a right to own that land? Again there would be agreement that those whose parents and grandparents drifting back into the mists of time were granted the right to exclude others from the common treasury may continue to do so even though they are only using the land to extract subsidies from others less fortunate who must work for the privilege of earning that money.

We might question whether it makes sense to suggest that land can be owned. It is not a mere material item like a car or television that can be acquired and destroyed at will. We might find a better future for agriculture if we, along with many indigenous peoples, began to see the earth as our mother, rather than land as our meal ticket.

Until recently my experience of farmers was indirect, acquired from friends who work in environmental conservation and whose contempt for them was intense. Now, of course, we are paying them to repair the devastation they wreaked on our native wildlife through the tearing up of hedges and burning of stubble--which we also paid for incidentally.

But is this really the farmers' fault? The economic system has itself forced them to become businessmen, a role for which they have proved themselves spectacularly ill-equipped. I sometimes wonder whether it would be better to apply the culture of land management to business rather than the other way around. From a sustainability perspective it is clear that unless you cherish and care for the land it will cease to feed you. We could usefully extend that ethic to our other industries. This is the approach to the land taken by my favourite farmers, who work on our own community farm here in Stroud.

The future of the land should not be a private conversation between politicians and farmers. The land is ours and we should all be involved in planning its future. While they have much to commend them as emergency protection, the policies of greenbelt have resulted in the museumisation of nature and the restriction of the countryside into a playground for the rich. Far from excluding people we would benefit more from a return to the land. We need the artificial parcelling up of our greatest national treasure to be revoked in a grand jubilee and the land redivided between those who are prepared to work with it, to lovingly and respectfully tend it to provide food for us all, which it miraculously continues to do. What a shame there were no green politicians in Oxford to suggest this to the farmers. Apoplexy all round I think.


  1. Molly - I agree with most of what you say here, especially about the CPRE and how this club has resulted in the exclusion of people from land and agriculture. It has turned our countryside into an empty green desert, quite the opposite of, say, William Morris's vision in 'News from Nowhere.'

    You seem here to be suggesting that we need land nationalisation, something that has been advocated since the 1880s, and could be quite straightforward, being as one person (the Queen) in principle owns all the land in Britain.

    PS. Jonathon Porrit was one of the speakers this year - is he not a green politician?

  2. Hi Dorothea

    Thanks for your comment. It is so confirming to know that people read the blog.

    I don't actually believe in ownership of land, rather stewardship by the local community or bioregion. Practically this probably comes to the same thing as your proposal.

    Jonathan Porritt is the acceptable face of the green movement. His dad was a lord you know! He was never very radical but has done a lot of good. We all have our role to play.

  3. Locally in Gloucestershire we've seen Conservative County councillors claim that Cotswold's ancient farmland, is not at risk of being sold. However other councillors, along with farmers who protested outside Shire Hall last month are rightly concerned by the Councils move to establish a group to 'oversee farm land disposal'.

    Tories and Labour have both privatised public assets on a massive scale. It is important these farms don't go the same way and worse still end up as 'pony paddock weekenders'. Too many farms are going out of business. This makes our County farms all the more important for young people who want to start farming. Future oil price rises will also make a return to farming in Gloucestershire essential. If we sell the farms off now we will loose the possibilities of revitalising our local farming.

    The community buy-out of Fordhall farm last year by 5,500 people provides one way forward: community land trusts which mutualise landholding using a cooperative, non-profit model. By mutualising land we can enable it to be forever affordable to individuals and accessible to the community. Land is effectively taken off the market, rather than at risk of being privatised by councillors now or in the future.

  4. ah,going to do the tragedy of the commons again??
    the fish in the sea are currently suffering from that
    Im sure it will work this time