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Uplands landscape

Research informs new government policy on hill farming

Funding of up to £26 million to support hill farmers and help some of England’s rural communities to thrive was unveiled by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Rt Hon Caroline Spelman.

The Government announcement is in response to last year’s inquiry carried out by the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) in which the Director of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research, Professor Michael Winter played a central role.

The initial inquiry showed that while hill farming is essential to maintaining the landscape and managing natural resources, the future sustainability of the upland areas also depends on a thriving business sector. New initiatives are needed to bring together the public and private sectors to create markets for the uplands’ natural resources. 

Professor Winter will be attending the launch of the Uplands Policy Review as part of a panel of experts selected to respond to the Review and offer his perspective on the uplands issues. He said, ‘We are delighted that the Government has responded with the first ever ministerial statement on the uplands, in response to our report. We are particularly pleased with the rural broadband funding announcement. This was an issue that came up time and again in our inquiry and this is welcome news.’

The broad new Rural Community Broadband Fund will be set up to help end the digital and social divide suffered by rural areas and funds will be available to hill farmers for environmental stewardship schemes. The broadband scheme will be jointly funded by the Rural Development Programme for England and Broadband Delivery UK, which is the team leading the Government’s drive UK to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015.

Caroline Spelman said, ‘England’s uplands communities face difficult challenges, yet these are places with a remarkable range of human and natural assets and they can have a bright future. I am determined that these areas will not be overlooked and that is why I will champion their interest’s right from the centre of Government. The range of measures announced today will help hill farmers become more competitive and take advantage of new opportunities to grow their businesses.’

Professor Winter also welcomes the proposed steps to improve hill farming viability and competitiveness, although he is not convinced that the financial challenges faced by hill farmers are yet fully recognised as some of these farmers are withdrawing from the hills. Unless farmers are adequately rewarded for the wider public goods they provide, such as recreation, water, carbon and wildlife it is still hard to see profitable farming emerge given the relentless rise in input costs.    

The Uplands Policy Review seeks to promote new ways to pay for ecosystem services, especially those related to water and carbon. There will be future expert workshops to explore and review the opportunities and challenges for the use of payment for ecosystem service. Professor Winter recognises this is a positive step, however, he is cautious about how it is approached. He commented, ‘This is a complex issue and requires innovative solutions involving co-ordination between the public and private sector. Our main concern is that the Government has rejected any coordinated national strategy, instead saying that Defra Ministers will lead and the Rural Communities Policy Unit will offer a focal point. We are also disappointed that the Minister feels there is no overwhelming case for a third socio-economic purpose for national parks.’

Professor Winter added,’ We are pleased that there is still an intention to consult on this issue – we did of course do so very widely in our own Inquiry.  We look forward to opportunities to engage with Government on this.’

Date: 10 March 2011

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